Structure and Nita’s First Act

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:

  1. Character set-ups and foreshadowing of conflict
  2. Nita meets Nick, worlds collide, relationship begins
  3. Aftermath and more weirdness as challenges to assumptions about the world
  4. Breakfast, beginning of partnership/relationship, new stability
  5. Work day: more instability because of new knowledges, surprises
  6. Hell: Nick tries to maintain stability there,  intro Max and Mammon
  7. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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..
  3. Nita and Nick separately process what just happened and get another surprise, knocking them farther off their normal assumptions about their lives.
  4. Nita and Nick eat breakfast together and establish a tentative truce/new stability.
  5. Nita and Nick separately are stopped by authority figures who add more instability to their lives.
  6. Nita and Nick separately try to proceed through a normal workday and are surprised at every turn, again challenging their world views..
  7. 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..
  8. 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.

 

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29 thoughts on “Structure and Nita’s First Act

  1. So does getting rid of the Max scene mean eliminating his pov? Or does he get pov in Act 2?

    Just curious. I love your wonky posts! They are interesting from s craft standpoint and motivational in terms of me wanting to try the same technique with my stuff (this would, of course, require me to produce some stuff, so… It might be a while before I get a chance).

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    1. I’m not getting rid of Max. I’m cutting his scene back. It’ll read better if it’s tighter and it should be shorter than Nick’s.

      Oh, I see the confusion. I meant “cut back” not “cut entirely.”

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      1. That makes sense! I mean, if you had meant cut him out, at lead I had the joy of reading his pov in rough drafts. But I’m glad he’s staying a pov character! I thought his perspective was interesting.

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  2. I am really curious if your numbers changed from contempory romance to fantastic contemporary romance. If they didn’t, what’s taking the most cuts? I’m thinking that fantasy needs at least a little bit of extra explanation, and those extra words have to come from somewhere.

    I guess *Maybe This Time* would be the closest to this book — *Wild Ride* and *Dogs and Goddesses* and *The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes* all had co-writer factors that would further complicate the wordcount issues.

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    1. I don’t think so. There is a lot of world-building in this, but you can’t explain to the reader that it’s paranormal and therefore you have to tell her stuff. It’s still story first. I think it’s just part of the way I write.

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      1. OK, just wondering. I think we do spend a lot of words on setting, anyway. Jane Austen was writing contemporary romance, and while it helps a lot to study her era (or watch the BBC version if available (-:), a modern reader can still catch enough to be anchored in the story.

        I’m reading *A Passage to India* right now, and I don’t know very much at all about India during that time. But I’m still doing OK as a reader; Forster was writing for people who weren’t familiar with India, either. (I will admit that I “cheated” and did a Google Image search for the Marabar Caves, but the Barabar Caves that they were based on don’t have a lot of great images. And actually, Forster says they aren’t that great for sightseeing.

        Just mulling over the whole thing, wondering where I can be skimpy, and where I should pile it on. I’d say a lot depends on the reader, too. I just read something interesting on Reddit where a guy was comparing a scene from Pratchett and a scene from “The Name of the Wind”, and people were defending all sorts of styles. (-: I just have to find my niche.

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  3. This is an awesome post and I can’t wait to read it properly, but in the meantime (insert off topic warning) I can never hear the word wonky without adding ‘donkey’. The Wonky Donkey was for a time one of my kids’ favourite books. It’s lodged in my brain forever. I should save it for poetry Thursday, but since it’s now going round in my brain:

    It starts :
    I was walking down the road and a I saw a donkey (hee haw). He only had three legs. He was a wonky donkey.
    I was walking down the road and I saw a donkey (hee haw). He only had three legs and one eye.
    He was a winky wonky donkey.
    and so on until…
    I was walking down the road and I saw a donkey (hee haw).
    He only had three legs, one eye and he liked to listen to country music and he was quite tall and slim and he smelt really bad and that morning he got up early and he hadn’t had any coffee and he was always getting up to mischief but he was quite good looking.
    He was a spunky, hanky panky, cranky, stinky dinky, lanky, honky tonky, winky wonky donkey

    Yeah, school holidays are getting to me. 12 days and counting.

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  4. Do you ever worry about cutting too much out of a book/scene/what have you?

    I’m thinking of books I’ve read with WAY too much description of surroundings in them (Jean Auel.) And books that move in a jerky fashion from scene to scene ( some parts of Water Witch.) I’ve enjoyed them both but I can see that both could have used some of your writing skills, in different ways.

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    1. The problem is that if I don’t cut, the reader will.
      Elmore Leonard is the expert here: “Try to leave out the parts people skip.”
      If there’s too much fat in a scene, the reader will start to skim. If I trim the fat, the chances are greater that she won’t skim something important.

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      1. You know, that is so true. I’m not the only voracious reader (and librarian) who stops reading (and won’t buy) a book when it becomes clear a couple chapters in that neither the author nor their editor was willing to cut or edit. Do writers know this?

        There is no clearer example than reading Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman manuscript and seeing its transformation into To Kill a Mockingbird. (Good editors are goddesses.) (And this is why we love seeing your early drafts to final versions develop :))

        I suspect authors whose books sell anyway don’t care. I gave up on Jane Smiley and Neal Stephenson, among other storytellers including many romance novelists who just couldn’t move it along and Tell The Darn Story. Cory “Geek Textbook” Doctorow is another example. He has great talent, but lordy, someone needs to teach him to put a sock in it. Writers need to pay attention to Hitchcock (paraphrase: a good film should be … life without the boring bits) or Elmore Leonard, in your example.

        I buy books when I know I will re-read them, but the library is always my first stop. If I can’t get past the first few chapters without drifting off to my To Do List or a What’s in the Fridge Exploration, that book goes back to the library. I always give books and their authors second and third chances, but rarely have I found “My Words are Too Important to Edit” writers ever improve.

        So, thank you for your story-telling and writing-telling trials and tribulations – and your oeuvre, which has brought us such happiness.

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      2. This is true. I borrowed a romantic suspense novel from mother when we were visiting family years ago, and at the end of a chapter, a child gets kidnapped. Then the next 20 PAGES are filled with weird info dump about office routines and dating habits to tell you how a character has spent the past three years. It wasn’t remotely necessary, and it completely killed the pacing. There were a lot of problems with that book already, but when that landed on the pile, I reached a critical mass of irritation. I still complain to my mother about that.

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      3. I’m not bashing, the books are good stories, but I had to give up on JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood because of all the the scenes with the Lessers. I just read lesser and lesser… :-p

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  5. Without going back to previously published scene drafts, it’s hard to really get a sense of this, but it makes me remember that back when you published a followup draft of the breakfast scene, I found myself confused over the points of view of the food in that scene. It felt as if Nita’s experience of the food wasn’t the crucial point — it was Nick really starting to get distracted by the food and Nita’s enjoyment of it, but I was sort of getting zapped back and forth between the two of them.

    I don’t know, really — it just might be a place to do some snipping?

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    1. I’m trying to do too much in the breakfast scene, so I need to break it down into beats and then make sure that each beat is shaped and escalated to lead into the climax. So it’s not so much looking at individual things to cut when you’re cutting something by a third, it’s finding the spine of the scene and getting rid of anything that’s not attached to that.

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  6. I saw the post title this morning and thought ‘Woohoo, another post on structure!’ It was a great way to start the day. Thanks!

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  7. Thank you for sharing this insight into the “wonky” bits of writing! I love the finished products and it is a pleasure to see your story expertise at work.

    Currently working on revamping my NaNoWriMo story (I won this year for the first time ever!) and your posts about scene and structure and making sure that everything is doing something are helping me a lot.

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  8. Question….first was scupper and then the donuts and then I stopped being so attentive to Demon Here warnings. Would it be at all practical to conflate the two?

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    1. Nope. The scupper is just Hellish booze, and I need it to be that.
      The doughnuts were a White Supremacist plot.
      Totally different things.

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  9. I love posts like this. Thank you!
    I am struggling with structure in my own mss. I’m going to try giving each scene/sequence the one sentence test.

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  10. The problem with your using “cut what people skip” is that you couldn’t writing boring dialogue if you tried. So while it’s a good motto for most authors it has limited utility for you; I and I suspect most of your readers would happily read chapters of your great dialogue going nowhere.

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    1. It’s funny, I just read a book for an author quote, and the characters were fine and their dialogue was fun, but when nothing had happened by page 93, I said, “Sorry, can’t quote” and stopped reading. Plot really does matter.

      But thank you (g).

      Edited to add: I shouldn’t say nothing had happened. Things happened. There was just no conflict, no struggle, no escalation . . .

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