As you all may have gathered, I write fiction. In a given work, there are usually numerous characters. Each character has to be carefully tracked, and interwoven with the others. This can be a chore if you don’t have a plan.
Today I’d like to talk a little about how I lay out and execute these outlines, plans, or arcs.
It all starts with a cup of coffee. Before I commit a single word to the computer, I pace about, usually early in the morning, and visualize where I’d like to go with the book from start to finish.
Once I have a decent idea about the start and end point, I write up an outline using a basic formula. I’ve pasted a loose example below. Note: this is not original to me. For the full, fleshed out version read an excellent little book called “Save the Cat!”
Beat Sheet for notes.
Act I First 25 pages
Opening Image– “Snapshot of the world before the story begins.”
Theme Stated– State what your story is about before the adventure begins.
Set Up– Show the hero “at Home, at Work, at Play.” Tell us about his world.
Catalyst– Something that sets the story into motion
Debate– Where a hero doubts the journey he must take.
Act II Page 25-85 Act two is 2x size of others
Break into Two– The hero must make a proactive choice to step into Act Two. This is where he makes the now-or-never decision to go forward.
B-Story– The person that assists the hero, and teaches him the lessons of the journey. Often a love interest.
Fun and Games– This is the poster of the movie. Explore new world hero has entered.
Midpoint– No turning back. Stakes are raised. False victory, or false defeat. Time clock. Pace picks up.
Bad Guys Close In-Pressure is applied either internally (hero team problems), or externally (bad guys tighten grip).
All is lost– Something dies. Hero transforms- sloughs off old skin. Mentors, etc. die here. Stripped of everything that makes him feel safe.
Dark Night of the Soul– “Why hast thou forsaken me?”
Break into three– Thanks to new info, hero steps to new level and goes all the way.
Finale– Final exam for hero. Act one, hero has problems. Act Two, learned about problems and some small part of him dies. Act three, final test to see if he’s learned his lessons.
Gather team, load up. This is the “swords sharpening” scene.
Storm the castle. After a couple of minutes of righteous ass-kicking, the bad guy springs his trap.
Hightower surprise. The Emperor strikes.
Rally! Where brains are eaten, and the hero digs deep.
Execute new plan. Use the force, not your puny radar.
Final Image– Snapshot of the world after, the mirror image of opening scene. Think butterflies.
Now, I do try to incorporate these “beats” into my arcs and stories, but keep in mind that this is a guide, not a technical manual to be followed lock-step. Also, you CAN write a book without such a “beat sheet,” but the results might be messy. For example, my very first book (In the Valley) was written without an outline, let alone the deliberate story template posted above. Personally, I think it shows. My next book, “The Captain’s Cauldron,” was planned, but I still wasn’t satisfied. By the time I had reached the final book in the trilogy, “Immolation,” there had been enough accumulated reader feedback and experience that I could not only draw up a decent outline, but I knew what readers wanted, specifically.
The School of Hard Knocks, “Save the Cat!,” reader input, and the crucial advice of a friend, author and mentor led to the “Beat Sheet Cheat Sheet” that I posted above.
It works, and these days I take it into account when I lay out and plan books and arcs.
OK, I read back through this post, and I don’t think I described “arc” well enough. An individual character arc is one character’s journey through the narrative. It doesn’t have to hit all the beats (because those can be covered by other characters), but it does need to conform with the central narrative. A story is a tapestry, everything needs to intertwine. It’s crucial to have a plan. I learned this the hard way, and if there are new authors out there reading this, I can’t stress this enough.
So after coffee drinking, I lay out the given arc using the Beat Sheet Cheat Sheet. There is a master outline for the entire book with individual character Point-of-Views (POVs) described for each beat (this is created first), then there are the individual arc outlines. I usually describe each beat with a short paragraph, then I step back and look at the whole to see if it makes sense. Using this method, I try to avoid plot holes or unresolved characters.
Once this is done, it’s time to write. Writing goes a lot faster when the planning is done beforehand. Also, there is much less waste. Nothing sucks worse than spending all day on something, and then having to throw it away (or having your document crash. Save always and often. And back it up on a geek stick).
Alright, that’s my bit for today about writing. Hopefully this is helpful to someone- I wish I would have seen something like this before I started on “Valley.”
And yes, I am currently involved in doing what I have described above.