The Minimum First Tier Things an Organic Writer Needs to Know About a Story Before It Will Work
The second installment of a two-part series.
(Read Part One of this series here.)
The Nine Things You Should Know Before You Begin Writing
This reminds me of that old Steve Martin joke: How do you avoid paying taxes on one million dollars? Okay, first you get a million dollars…
Insert nervous laugh here.
The nine things you need to know break down into two categories: the four sequential parts of your stories, roughly defined as quartiles… and the five essential story milestones (story points) that chart your course.
Again, if your story is to work, you will discover these nine things. Either within a plan, or within a draft that will require significant rewriting.
The suggestion here is that you really can discover – and should – each of them ahead of time. When you do, the organic process you apply to the manuscript will turn your metaphoric car into a high speed bullet train.
Not quite nearly the speed of sound, like that airplane, but orders of magnitude more efficient than writing blindly from the jump seat of a car.
The four contextual parts of your story.
You can’t really go deep into these until you know the five story milestones, but this is what you’ll be shooting for when you do. Each of these is comprised of about 12 to 18 scenes, and eat up about 25 percent of the total length of the story.
– a Part 1 set-up – scenes that introduce the hero, the context and stakes of the story, all before something huge happens (the First Plot Point) that really ignites the hero’s journey, need and quest, which is what the story is really all about.
– A Part 2 response to their new journey – whatever their life course and need was before, it’s either put on hold or altered because of a new calling or need, as presented and defined by the First Plot Point.
– A Part 3 attack on the problem – whereas the hero has been reeling and reacting and fleeing and rebounding, at the mid-point of the story they begin to fight back, to move forward to seek a solution.
– A Part 4 resolution – wherein the hero conquers their inner demons and becomes the catalyst for the resolution of conflict and the meeting of their goal.
These four parts define the context of your scenes. Even if you’re pantsing. For example, if you’re in Part 2 (reaction/response) and you’re writing a scene that has your hero acting perfectly heroic, and successfully so, it won’t work as well (because it’s out of context) and will ultimately sabotage the flow of the entire narrative.
Again, if the pantser knows this they’re on safe ground. If they don’t, they won’t understand the rejection slip that becomes an inevitability.
The Five Milestone Story Points
In looking at those four contextual story parts, it’s clear that you also need to understand the transitions between them. If Part 1 is a set-up for the arrival of the First Plot Point (which is the most important moment in your story… did you know that? If you didn’t, let this be a wake-up call for you…), and if Part 2 is a response to it…
… then obviously and with absolute necessity you need to understand what a First Plot Point even is, where it goes, what it does and why this works.
The same is true of the other four major story milestones. Your story won’t work – planner or pantser – until they’re functional and in the right place.
Here are those five moments that your story depends on:
– the opening hook
– the First Plot Point
– a Mid-Point context shifting transition
– the Second Plot Point
– the ending.
Some of these can unfold as tight sequences of scenes, especially the ending.
Each of these is its own clinic on dramatic fiction, because they are the essence of dramatic fiction.
The nervous pantser might, at this point, say: hey, where’s characterization in all this?
The answer is – it’s all over it. These four parts are a roadmap to the presentation and flourishing of your character in context to the dramatic need and action you’re giving them. If you implement your characterization outside of these guidelines, your story won’t work as well as it should.
Sometimes people reject what is true simply because it’s new.
They’re not comfortable doing it that way. Exercise and diet, for example. Relationships. Money management. All of these life challenges depend on certain principles, and you can reject those truths until you are blue in the face, and you can do things your way if you want (the singles condo complex is full of them)… but you won’t get near any of those goals until you live according to certain principles.
Same with your stories. Pants if you choose, but do so with an awareness that there are, at a minimum, nine things you need to understand when you do. Or you will either most certainly fail, or you’ll stumble upon them instinctively without ever really knowing how it happened.
All nine of these story ingredients and principles can be developed ahead of time. Brainstorming, percolating, trying out scenarios and sequences using note cards and conversations over drinks… all of them are a viable means of discovering what dramatic conventions serve your story, and even your character, best.
I wish you well on this journey. I hope, at the very least, that I’ve eased your fear of flying, and that you’ll gift yourself with this new engine of creative efficiency and productivity.