This is another wonky post about structure, so you have been warned.
I’m obsessed with structure. Structure has a huge impact on meaning in a story the way that structure has a huge impact on meaning in a sentence. So when I went back to Nita’s Act One, currently logging in at an unsustainable 37, 236 words, it was time to analyze the structure. In the beginning, I look for two things: word count of scenes and scene sequences (scenes that grouped together form a narrative unit of their own). If I’ve planned my scene sequences right, a one sentence description of what happens in each should tell the story of that act. I do structure analysis in Curio because it’s the easiest way to diagram out and color code a scene. So let’s start with the Curio doc of Nita’s First Act:
There are seven narrative chunks of scene in this first act:
- Character set-ups and foreshadowing of conflict
- Nita meets Nick, worlds collide, relationship begins
- Aftermath and more weirdness as challenges to assumptions about the world
- Breakfast, beginning of partnership/relationship, new stability
- Work day: more instability because of new knowledges, surprises
- Hell: Nick tries to maintain stability there, intro Max and Mammon
- Crisis and Turning Point: Nita accepts the supernatural, Nick acts emotionally, story changes.
So Act One is Nita and Nick trying to maintain a stable world in the face of huge revelations and conflicts, finally accepting the new normal and each other as necessary to keep their responsibilies.
Part one is low key because it’s set-up, but I like introducing Nita and Nick in separate scenes because it involves the reader. She may not be sure in the first scene who’s going to be Nita’s love interest (assuming she thinks this is a romance), but when Nick shows up in the second scene, she’ll think, “There he is,” and then as his scene plays out, start to expect things of the next scene which will surely be their meet. That gives me reader expectation and anticipation, neither of which is to be sneezed at. I think, looking at them now, that I need to do more parallel structure. Nita tells Button that keeping her island safe is her responsibility; Nick tells Vinnie that he can’t leave until he’s found the gate, the missing agents, and the guy who ordered Joey killed because it’s his responsibility. Also in both scenes, Nita and Nick are clearly the ones in charge, the ones calling the shots, the ones who keep people from interrupting or eject them from the scene. So that stuff is in there, I think I just need to focus it more, probably by cutting some things because those scenes are a little long, especially Nita’s; the anticipation pay off is in the next scene sequence. Still, after two years of reworking, these scenes are pretty damn close to what I want.
Then comes the second sequence, Nita and Nick in the bar. The first scene is the meet and beginning of conflict between the two, the second scene is Nick on the phone with Belia, which introduces Belia and Max and a lot of the Hell stuff, the next scene is Nita vs. Nick with the scupper, which is the most fun so far, I think, and the last scene is Nick holding an unconscious Nita and then dealing with her surprise return to consciousness, something that foreshadows the end of the act. Since the fun stuff is in the third scene, I’m okay that that’s longer. I put the second and fourth scene word counts into green because they’re short, but I think this scene sequence belongs to Nita, so I’m going to let that ride. The first scene in this sequence, though, maybe be too long, and the entire sequence, clocking in at over 5800 words, could definitely use trimmed. The key here is that this is where the fun really has to start, so this is where the story has to begin to move.
The third sequence is the aftermath of weirdness of the second sequence, showing how the two teams process what happened and how their relationships shift because of it. There’s also some payoff for the reader there, because she sees both sides and knows things that neither Nick or Nita knows, so she can look forward to them sorting that out. Mostly, though, these scenes serve to deepen the supporting characters–Chloe, Mort, Jeo, and Rab–because of the way they interact with Nita and Nick. They were introduced in the first sequence, this sequence develops them and their teams. I think it’s a necessary sigh space, too, a resting place for the reader who just survived the second sequence; she has to process it, too.
The fourth sequence is Breakfast, which comes in over 4000 words. That cannot stand. It’s a crucial scene for a lot of reasons, a turning point in this act, but 4000 words is insane. So I need to go back and look again at what has to happen: Nita and Nick have to form a temporary truce over food, Mort has to break the news about the doughnuts, Nick needs to foreshadow Button, the Mayor has to show up . . . argh. So what I have to do is sit down and diagram this scene out. Protagonist: Nita. Antagonist: Nick. Conflict: She wants him gone because she’s suspicious of him; he needs to stay because of responsibility (see above). What I don’t have is escalating scene beats, I just have a lot of Stuff. Just hell.
The fifth sequence is an even bigger clusterfuck. It’s supposed to be the stable work worlds Nita and Nick live in disrupted, but it ends up being a party mix of Stuff. The first two scenes are Nita and then Nick dealing with authority and surprises which knock them off their assumptions. Then they regroup and go to work for the next seven scenes; that’s too many I think. The fact that two of the Nita scenes are in Chloe’s POV helps break things up some, but still too many. So looking at the word counts and the antagonists, it’s obvious that I combine Chloe’s two scenes into one and Nick’s two scenes with Fenella into one. If I separate the two authority scenes off into their own sequence and deal with them as a separate setback, that leaves me with Chloe vs Nita, Nick vs. Vinnie, Nick vs. Fenella, Nita vs. Vinnie, Nita vs. Mr. Crome. That’s a mess. So can I cut the Nick vs Vinnie scene entirely? That would give me Chloe vs. Nita (and Lily), Nick vs Fenella, Nita vs. Vinnie, Nita vs .Mr. Crome. There’s still no meaning in that structure. Must cogitate.
The sixth sequence in Nick in Hell, first scene in Nick’s PoV, second in Max’s. Nick’s is shorter than Max’s, so I think I just need to do a scene analysis on both and then cut Max’s. This is not hard to do.
The last sequence is everything blowing up in Nita’s face: Nick meets her in the bar, they go back to the motel and find Forcas, Nick struggles with Richiel, Nita struggles to accept what she’s seen and what Nick is. At the end it’s a whole new story, so strong turning point. I think the second scene here can be sharpened, but bringing this sequence in at around 4000 words is pretty good. I want to end fast.
So given those changes, my scene sequence sentence summary is:
- Nita tries to find out what happened with the shooting by talking with Chloe, Nick tries to find out what happened by talking with Vinnie; both are safe in their normal worlds.
- Nita and Nick meet and clash and discover there’s something very not normal about each other, challenging their views of how the world works..
- Nita and Nick separately process what just happened and get another surprise, knocking them farther off their normal assumptions about their lives.
- Nita and Nick eat breakfast together and establish a tentative truce/new stability.
- Nita and Nick separately are stopped by authority figures who add more instability to their lives.
- Nita and Nick separately try to proceed through a normal workday and are surprised at every turn, again challenging their world views..
- Nick goes to Hell and tries to put a lid on things there so there’ll be at least one part of his world that’s stable..
- Nita and Nick together solve Forcas’s disappearance and fight Richiel; Nita realizes the supernatural is real; this establishes the beginning of a partnership and a new stability, which Act Two will, of course, kick the slats out from under.
Protagonist’s Arc: Nita moves from knowing everything about the island and herself to knowing that she’s missing huge parts of both.
Relationship Arc: Nick kills Richiel to save Nita, even though it means he’s lost an important source of information; Nita believes and trusts Nick.
So all I need to do now is rewrite that act so it’s shorter, sharper, and tells that story. Actually, it’s pretty close now, it’s just the Breakfast That Lasts a Thousand Years and that mess of a workday that I have to clean up. Nothing but good times ahead. Except the second act is also a mess, but later for that.