One of the things that charting an act can do (once you’re at the truck draft stage) is give you the synopsis of the act. Yes, I know synopses usually are for entire stories, but if you think of each act as a story in itself (and I do), then an act synopsis is a huge help because if you can tell yourself in one paragraph the plot of an act, you can hold the shape of that act in your head as you revise. A discovery draft is “this happens, and then this happens, and oh look what just showed up, and then this happens and wait this happened earlier, and . . .” It’s incoherent because it’s not supposed to be coherent, it’s supposed to be creative and free and anything goes.
The truck draft has to be coherent.
So I can divide my story into scene sequences and transitions and find parallels and generally make sure it looks right as a diagram, then label the parts and make a list of the labels. Like this:
Nita and Nick begin investigation by dealing with partners/minions.
What happened to Joey?
WTF? Is going on?
Nita and Nick meet for breakfast.
Nita and Nick go to work.
The Supernatural is real and we’re in a lot more trouble than we thought.
That looks like word salad, but I know all the stuff underneath it, so that’s an outline for a synopsis for me. Then I have to flesh out that outline, looking to see what’s really there in those sections, and that’s where the real clean-up happens.
For example, the diagram showed me that the first two scenes were parallel transitions from the stable into the unstable, aka story. Except they weren’t parallel. The last pass on the first scene you read still had Mort tricking Nita into coming to the crime scene because I wanted an explanation for Nita wearing pajamas. That’s discovery draft stuff and perfectly fine. But it’s not fine for a truck draft because it takes away Nita’s agency. Looking at the first two scenes as parallels, I like it that Nita is lively and drunk and Nick is dead and sober, but I don’t like it that Nita is a dupe and doesn’t get involved until Joey is mentioned (YES, I KNOW MANY OF YOU MENTIONED THAT, I REMEMBER) and Nick is on point the entire time. Nita has to have a reason to go to somebody’s else’s crime scene.
It took me awhile but I realized that there has to be a clear indication, no, a clear statement, that Mort called her in because he thinks this is proof of something she’s suspected all along: something hinky is going on. She has to say to Button, “I’ve had a bad feeling about this all along, little things have been making me uneasy, and now there’s this. I have to get out of this car to investigate.” That gives Nita the same thing Nick has: a specific goal as she enters the scene. This is August Wilson’s “Start after everything but the action is finished.” With this scene, Nita’s vague suspicions become concrete and she goes into action.
So there’s another rewrite. But once that’s done, the rest falls into place, and I get this synopsis:
Nita is called in by her brother Mort to an investigation of a shooting that confirms her suspicions: there’s something wrong on her island. Nick is in the middle of an investigation when a shooting makes him suspect that there’s a lot more going on than his original problem. They both need to know what happened to Joey, in part because they both liked Joey, but in the main because they think there’s something very wrong on Demon Island, and it’s their jobs to stop it. That suspicion is only heightened when Nick realizes that Nita isn’t completely human and Nita realizes somebody is trying to kill her. They meet by accident at a diner for breakfast several hours later and try to get information from each other while having deep suspicions about each other. That breakfast makes them go out to investigate not just Joey’s death but each other, in the course of which they find out that things are even worse than they’d thought: Nick finds out what Nita is and Nita finds out that several people on the island are terrified of Nick. Then Mort calls Nita in on a missing persons case and asks her to bring Nick because he’s the last person to talk to the missing, and the result of that investigation makes it clear that the supernatural is real, Very Bad People are doing Very Bad Things, and Nita and Nick are the only ones who can stop them.
To be clear, that’s a synopsis, not a blurb, it’s not supposed to be fancy. It’s just the story I need to tell in that act.
Which means I can whip that truck draft into shape now (yes, I’ve written all of that, what do you think I do when I’m not posting here?) because I know exactly what that part of the story is. I’ll probably still discover things as I write, I’ll definitely cut some things because they don’t fit that plot, but this is the point where it’s all downhill in this act, the story is launched, all the characters and subplots are introduced, and at the turning point, we have a brand new story. That’s a third of the book right there, folks. And the fun part is, the last three acts are all action (which is what the last three acts always should be, escalating action).
Of course, once the truck draft for the whole book is done there’ll be another revision to make it all fit together, but this is what happens in Act One.
Stepping back to analyze what you have, including diagramming it out, can clean up a lot of the garbage left lying around after your discovery draft party is over. Discovery drafts are a good time, full of wild insights and leaps of imagination, but then in the cold light of day, it’s time to clean up, and that’s when you need an outline or a diagram or whatever you prefer to show you the shape of what you’ve written.
It’s snowing outside, cold and beautiful, and I’m curled up in a lot of quilts with a lot of dogs and my laptop. It’s a good day to fix a first act.