Questionable: What’s the Rule on Acts?

Jeanine asked:
I’m assuming from what you’ve been doing that 1) you think your acts should all have about x number of words and/or 2) you think all acts in a book need to have about the same number of words to feel balanced. So, given that, could you, hypothetically, split act 2 into two acts and have five acts instead of four? . . . . Is there a rule of thumb about the number of acts one can have in a book like yours? I feel like I’ve seen different numbers of acts used in different literary works but perhaps I’m missing something obvious due to the fact that this is not the kind of writing I do.

There is no rule on acts.

They’re just a tool that I use to structure. So here’s my theory of acts–ust mine, nobody else’s, not a rule, merely a cheat sheet for me, the lousy plotter:
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Questionable: What’s With Your Obsession Over Word Counts?

Andrea asked:
I am wondering where the word count requirements originate. Is that an industry standard? Is it what you yourself have developed as the best structure? A mix of the two?

A mix of the two.

Word count is usually stipulated in the contract. In this case, my contract says 100,000 words, which is my natural length anyway. Legally I can go 10,000 words either side of that, so 90,000 to 110,000, although as I remember Fast Women was 116,000.

The act counts are mine because I write in acts to arc the plot. And because I want the plot to escalate, I try to make sure each act is shorter than the last one so that the turning points/big moments come faster together as the plot progresses. That’s just my thing, nothing contractural.

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Writing/Romance: Scene Structure: Beats

 

A beat is a unit of conflict.

Actually, there are many definitions of “beats” in writing fiction, but for the purposes of this series, beats are a unit of conflict, analgous to the acts in a story. They’re a tool for finding out what’s wrong with a scene, for strengthening a scene, but probably not for writing one. If you’ve written a scene you think is great, don’t bother with beats. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if a scene isn’t working, then looking for beats is an excellent way to tighten and focus it.

 

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Questionable: How do you make two timelines work?

CateM wrote: “I’m trying to do one of those dual timelines in a story, where Plot A is the protagonist’s current story, and Plot B is a story from their past. I’ve watch this structure go bad many, many times (*cough* Arrow *cough*), but I also know I’ve seen it work really well before (Big Fish, Second Hand Lions). The problem is, in my favorite examples, the past storyline either features a different protagonist than the present storyline, or the past storyline is the main story, and the present is just a framing device (The Notebook, for all its problems).  Anyone have any thoughts about what makes this structure work, and what makes it not work? Or examples of ones that work for you, even if you can’t put your finger on why?”

The big problem with running two story lines is that readers/viewers will like one better and see the other as an intrusion, aka the parts people skip. Arrow is an excellent example of that; anytime I’ve gone back to watch again, I’ve fast forwarded through the flashbacks and never missed them.  It’s been awhile since I’ve read or seen a narrative that does make that work, and then they tend not to be traditional linear stories (the present story with flashbacks) but more framed stories or patterned plots.  So assuming you want. linear structure with flashbacks, I think you have to ask yourself some questions.

  1. Why do you need both stories?
  2. Which one is more important?
  3. Can you do memory instead of flashback?

 

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Echoes and Sharpies

Krissie bought me a pack of colored Sharpies the last time she was here and I’ve been working them like crazy, trying to track the echoes in Nita.  “Echoes” is not a technical term, but “motif” isn’t right for this and repetition is too general.  What I’m talking about here, folks, is a scene that recurs, shifting each time to arc a character or plot point.  For example . . .

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Questionable: How Do You Move a Story Through Time?

Colognegrrl asked:
I am presently working on a manuscript that has been giving me hell. I know where I’m coming from and where I want to end, but in between are a lot of problems. The main challenge is to fill the time gaps, you know like “this scene is on Sunday and the next important thing happens on Thursday, but what did she do in between? She must have met the guy, she must have done this and that, it’s too boring to tell but how do you take the reader from Sunday to Thursday …?”

This is called a segue and it’s used all the time. The easiest way is to dump everything into a clause: 

“For the next five days, Jane tried to pretend she didn’t care, throwing herself into her work, but on Thursday . . . “

If stuff happens during that time, you may need a full sentence: 

“Jane snapped at her mother on Sunday, savaged a client on Monday, kicked a dog on Tuesday, wept helplessly at work on Wednesday, and then fired her assistant on Thursday when he said, ‘This has to stop.’ Except he was right, so she rehired him and then that afternoon went to see Richard.”  Worst case scenario: It takes an entire paragraph as summary.

The key is to find out if there’s any info in that five days that must be on the page.  If there isn’t, stick with the basics:

“Five days later, Jane . . . “

Questionable: How Do You Start and Develop Subplots?

K asked:
Do you start out knowing all of the subplots? Or do they tumble and bump into each other along the way? Are there certain ways you like to develop subplots? Or do they just come to you?  Are they villain driven?

As I believe I’ve said before, I don’t recommend my method. I never know what the hell I’m doing in the beginning.  I just write.  Characters show up.  Some of them are interesting enough they develop their own plot lines.  Some of those I have to put the kibosh on because they’re cluttering up the story (good-bye, Mort).  Some of them echo the main plot or act as a foil to the main plot, and they deepen what’s happening in the story as a whole, so I keep them (hello, Max and Button).  So for the first discovery draft, I just let them happen. After that, as always, I analyze. And to analyze I go back to basic plot structure.

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Questionable: Love Scenes, Sex Scenes, Erotica

S said:

I would love to hear more about the difference between making love, having sex and erotica in a romance novel. What exactly makes them different from each other? . . . I always hear it described as ‘different levels of sizzle or heat’ but it seems to me that there is more to the grading than that. . . . Are there market expectations now re detailed sex? Romance novels seem to be getting more and more graphic (or maybe those are just the ones I’m buying!) I noticed in the [comments to the favorite love scene post] how few people listed a love scene that had any sex in it – I think I spotted one that took place in a bed. That’s interesting.

Sex is in the eye of the beholder.

Let me put that another way. Continue reading

Questionable: Back Story and Flashback

Katie Redhead said:

I vote yes to discussing how and when to deploy backstory effectively . . . And maybe I’m sort of asking another question all together about flashbacks vs backstory and whether which way we get the information makes a difference to how I feel about a character.

Let’s start with what back story is, then go on to the difference between flashback and memory as a way of putting back story on the page, and then talk about back story and character. Continue reading