Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Victory and a Book Review

I've finished a workable version of the outline.

Full outline first draft

Everything from the previous version is now on the right side of the mindmap, all folded up. The stuff on the left is the outline: a prologue and three acts, divided into about 35 "chapters" (though we'll see if these end up being the final chapter divisions), and a paragraph about each chapter.

All of this has come together in just about three days, which surprised me. I had a major breakthrough, which was precipitated by a simple piece of good fortune: I read the right book. This book is Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell. I have another book by Bell, The Art of War for Writers. I like the style of that book, but felt that it was lacking in concrete technical advice. Plot and Structure definitely fills that gap. Within hours of opening it, I could feel everything starting to click into place. What's more, I felt energized--reading this book showed me that I had almost all the right elements in place, if I could only get them arranged. Then the book provided concrete, actionable advice about how achieve this, and I could hardly wait to sit down and work! I would definitely recommend this book to anyone working on a novel.

Perhaps the most useful section of the book is the part that covers common "plot patterns" such as a revenge, love, the quest, adventure, and so on. I knew my story had some of these elements, but this section had great tips about how these kinds of plots actually move. Also, it solved a problem I was struggling with: one of my characters just didn't want to be part of the action. I knew I needed all my characters to have strong desires in order to drive the plot--could this reclusiveness count as a desire, and if so, how could it provide enough energy to drive any action? As it turns out, there is a classic plot known as "one apart". I've certainly read this type of story, but could never quite "get" what was going on. Now I get it: the loner wants to do his own thing. In act two, circumstances conspire to draw him into action against his will. At the end, he must choose whether to act. Then he either re-engages with society, or retreats forever. Aha! I don't know why this wasn't obvious. I knew the question of whether to "engage" would be a driving conflict, but seeing it laid out in print let me know that I really could use this structure--it gave me permission. And there is more than enough action in his friends' parts of the story tempt my poor little introverted mystic into getting involved.

Another good piece of advice in Bell's book is to create a "stakes outline". Ask yourself, what bad things can happen to my lead character? Make a list of these, and then order them from bad to worst. Now you can look to this list as you work on generating rising conflict in Act 2: as the story goes on, the mishaps get closer and closer to the character's worst nightmares. I found this surprisingly fun to do. Imagining how my characters would react to the worst case scenario taught me what they're really made of, what they care about, and where they have hidden reserves of strength. It also gave me great ideas about where conflict could come from.

The last thing this book prompted me to do was to abandon my multi-threaded outline (that scheme for filling out subplots that I detailed in my last post). I'm still glad I did that to the level of laying out the subplots, but breaking it down to "scenes" was too much. Putting everything together into a single act-by-act chronological outline let me see that many points I had thought would need a whole scene could actually be covered in brief, as short beats in the main action scenes. It all seemed to fall magically together. My next step is to write!

ETA: Just noticed that I quit my job one year ago today.

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