Act Blurbs

This book is huge with a cast of thousands and five subplots plus, of course, a main plot.  And as we all know, organization is not in my natural skill set.  This leads me to do Act Blurbs.

You know what blurbs are, those pithy synopses on the back of the book that run something like “She’s a cop, he’s the Devil, they fight crime!” and right away you know what the book is about and if it’s your thing.  So early on, I figured out that one way to break the progression of a book down was to give the acts titles.  Then I remembered I’m bad at titles and went to one sentence blurbs.  Like:

Act One: Demon Island blows up and Nita tries to put it back together while investigating Nick.
Act Two: Nita’s understanding of reality blows up and Nick helps her put it back together while they investigate the multiple crimes on the island.
Act Three: Nita’s relationship with Nick blows up after Nick is poisoned, and she has to face the supernatural with a swashbuckling wildcard instead of an emotionless dead guy.
Act Four: Nita blows up because she’s on her last damn nerve and harrows Hell to stop the fuckery on her island and in her life and get her damned boyfriend back.

I run them for subplots and supporting characters, too.  Here’s Button’s four-act subplot:

Act One: Button meets Nita and makes a career plan carefully distant from her.
Act Two: Button finds out the supernatural is real and she’s inherited a part of it, made annoying flesh in Max, and begins to rely on Nita.
Act Three: Button becomes Nita’s partner in spirit as well as name and joins the team, even though Max is part of it.
Act Four: Button kicks racist ass, holds down the island while Nita’s in Hell, and does not shoot Max again.

So that’s all well and good, but I’m now picking up the book again–I lost June to some medical issues–and the second act is full of great stuff but it’s not exactly tightly structured.  Or structured at all.  So I looked at what I had and decided that internal act blurbs would be good.  Since many of you have already read a semi-final truck draft for Act One, here are its act blurbs:

Act One, Part One: Nita becomes convinced that her suspicions that something’s wrong on her island are true and works to straighten things out; Nick looks at the mess that is Hell’s part of Demon Island and works to straighten things out.
Act One, Part Two: Nita and Nick establish a tentative truce at breakfast; they part and work on solving their individual problems as Nita finds out she’s on Weird Duty which changes her plans and Nick finds out demons built the island because of him which changes his plans.
Act One, Part Three: Nita goes to Motel Styx and finds out the supernatural is real and her job is a lot more complicated than she thought; Nick goes to Hell and finds out Nita’s life is more complicated than he thought which means so is his job now.
Act One, Part Four: Nita and Nick snarl at each other until they’re threatened, at which point they act as a team; Nita finds out Nick’s not the conman she thought he was, and Nick finds out Nita’s tougher than he thought she was.

Act Two, Part One: Nita melts down as the full impact of the supernatural on the island and in her own history is revealed, but Nick mops her up.
Act Two, Part Two: Nita accepts the New Normal and works to clean up the human-created mess on her island ; Nick refuses to accept his New Normal and works to clean up the Hell-created mess on Demon Island.
Act Two, Part Three: Nita pulls herself together as the rest of her heritage is revealed and cheers up; Nick comes undone as his New Normal becomes undeniable and gets cranky about it.
Act Two, Part Four: Nita adapts settles into her a New Normal (“My boyfriend’s going to be the next Devil”) and Nick implodes and collapses into his New Normal.

This may seem like a waste of time unless you’ve ever tried to organize a long novel with a lot of characters and subplots.  For that kind of story, this kind of shorthand can be a lifeline.  There aren’t any rules for doing act blurbs because they’re just there for my use, much like discovery drafts, but I do think that constructing the blurbs with clear relationships in the sentences helps organize the content of the story at large.  For example:

• The Act blurbs start with the character to whom the book or the subplot belongs, in the case of Act One with Nita (main protagonist) in the main plot list and with Button (subplot protagonist) in the Button subplot list.  I don’t want a progression that has Nita as the subject of some sentences and Nick as the subject of others: the story belongs to the protagonist who is Nita  (Nick can have a subplot).

• The sentences are parallel in their construction so that they’re related to each other, which means that the act sections will fall into place with each other: Act One’s sentences all have “blows up” as a verb which means that that act is all about disruption and chaos (start with the day that is different); the Act One break-down of four blurb sentences all start with Nita (protagonist) and end with Nick in a parallel construction so that they’re moving through the same kind of plot, encountering the same character arc path even though their events are very different: They work to straighten things out, change plans, find out their jobs are more complicated, discover they misjudged each other, etc., in tandem so that even though they spend the second and third parts of that act apart, they’re still in sync.

• All the blurbs are one sentence, as short as possible (should be shorter) because the idea is to nail down the essence of that move in the plot arc.  Too much detail obscures the parallels.

• There are only four or five sentences in each set because more than that and I’m not doing an outline of the plot, I’m doing a synopsis.  

Obviously I’ll keep tweaking those sentences because they’re not quite right (too long), but they do what I need them to do: analyze a text that’s so damn complex I need a roadmap to keep it coherent.   And now that I have a map, I’m gonna hit that road and get some work done.

15 thoughts on “Act Blurbs

  1. You now know precisely where you are in the story — and so do we, thanks for sharing. As you say, time to get writing. Because we’re hooked.

  2. I like the inverted symmetry (is that a thing?) of the Act Two descriptions, starting with Nita melting down and ending with Nick melting down.

    1. I’ve always liked that, too.

      Macbeth has the same cross. In the beginning, Macbeth knows killing the king is morally wrong, his wife doesn’t see why (his job is killing people). By the end, Macbeth has lost his moral compass and is killing wives and babies, and Lady Macbeth is faced with the horror of what she’s done to the man she loves. She goes mad and kills herself, and he faces MacDuff down, realizes he’s doomed because of the prophecy, and attacks anyway, another suicide. I structured the cross in Tell Me Lies on that.

      1. Sweetness of your observation is now I’ll return to Tell Me Lies looking for the MacBeth Cross. Nothing but good reading ahead, hey-ho. Gives me something to do while you’re writing.

    1. Agreed. Especially since I’ve just struggled through the latest releases from two authors who were favourites when they started out, twenty years ago, but who now seem to publish their first drafts – which just do not hold together or convince at all. What should be fun is instead hugely irritating.

      Thanks for being a perfectionist, Jenny.

  3. The blurbs are beautiful and brilliant!

    I write resumes so the connection for me is more than at the storytelling level. The story / experience broken down into concise and interesting points that invite the reader to go further and know more.

    Love it and looking forward to reading the book when it comes out.

    Stay happy and healthy. Cheers!

  4. I like a character arc where a guy has — at the point where an action story has its climax — a meltdown in recognizing his new normal. Somehow, it makes me think of a guy having a baby.

  5. Just a side note – I saw signs on lawns for a Nikiya Dodd. She’s running for Alderperson. But I was surprised by the name the first one I saw. 🙂


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