Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Story structure is hard work

The last couple of months...

I've been spending what writing time I have on my fourth children's fantasy, so blogging has gone a bit on the back-burner.

The biggest difficulty with this latest book is not only that I'm doing it on my own without the help of my usual co-writer, but that for ages there was a big hole (and I'm talking ginormous) where there should have been the bulk of the story.

The First Act, as you might call it, was mostly fine. In fact it was fine through versions 1, 2 and 3 each of which took a different tack, with a different main character as the focus.

But the Second Act? So so. And the Third? Practically non-existent, except that I had a minuscule idea about how it would finish. Probably.

Because structure is always a bugbear for me, I have to work really hard at it, and I have a brain that says, Nah, let's just give up on that for today, when I've only just sat down to write.

So what made the difference? 

I enlisted some help. First I went back to a book written by Libbie Hawker - Take Off Your Pants! - which I'd read before and hadn't felt was quite as helpful as I'd hoped. However, I persisted with it this time, since it's primarily about structuring, and made some real progress.

Hawker doesn't work to a three act structure particularly; it took me a while to realise that she's focusing on character arc as her main structural approach. Nevertheless it proved useful, because it made me focus on where my main character was going to go as she journeyed through the book.

Then I turned to an old favourite: Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, with its fifteen 'beats' that point out the way in which many movies (and a number of novels) are structured to give the viewer/reader the greatest satisfaction.

Snyder is more of a three act structure man, which is fine. I needed that in conjunction with Hawker's character arc approach.

Now the thing is...

Both these books helped enormously this time round - aided by the fact that I was determined I wasn't going to be beat.

But I need to say that neither of them quite mention the fact that you really have to know quite a lot about your story before you try to work out things like character arcs and fifteen beats.

In spite of the way it reads in the books, you can't actually start out by sitting down and just doing a synopsis. At least I can't. I have to have piles of stuff written in order to know who the characters are, and in order to figure out at least something of what the story is actually about.

Consequently I now have a large bunch of separate files: various incomplete drafts, piles and piles of notes (to the point that no matter how hard I try I can't quite get them in any sort of order) and all sorts of notes on top of notes. What this process does is give me ideas enough to move forward on a synopsis. It stops me from believing that what I've written first time round is going to be enough, and that I need to keep digging deeper and deeper and asking Why until I'm blue in the face.

One result has been that the two main male characters in version one became one main male character in version two who eventually became the sidekick to the female main character - in the current version. Other characters came and went; whole scenes ended up in the bottom of the pile; fantastic plot moments were abandoned.

And then came Janice Hardy...

I pulled together the Hawker and Snyder synopses (such as they were, still incomplete). And then discovered a third book which I hadn't read before: Janice Hardy's Plotting Your Novel [also published as Planning Your Novel].

Hardy provides us with a series of workshops, taking you right back to the beginning, the place where I'd been months before when I was writing drafts and notes galore. You can skip some of the workshops, or you can - as I did - force yourself to answer the questions she provides, and see if there are other things that you should consider. (If it sounds like hard work, it is, but it was also satisfying because of the sense of progress.)

So now I had three 'assistants' on the case, and in spite of my brain threatening overload, I also had an increased sense of where the story was going. And wonder of wonders, as I pulled the various synopses together, I began to see that big hole that had been such a bugbear filling up at last with real content.

The job isn't finished yet. But I now have a real sense that completing a decent synopsis is possible. And once that's on the page, the real - and enjoyable - part of the writing can begin.

To be continued...

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