So eight weeks into this, Lily doesn’t have a plot, something you have all pointed out. And I don’t really want her to have a plot because then it won’t be play anymore. But even I am starting to be annoyed by how shapeless it all is. So I went back to my old standbys: conflict analysis and acts.
I’m very happy with Nita’s Act One. It’s 36,000 words which is 3,000 too many, but since it should be 1/3 of the book, that would make the finished book 108,000 words, and that’s within the normal contract requirement of 100,000, give or take 10% either way.
Then there’s Act Two, which is still a freaking mess even after I’ve been working on it. It’s been awhile since we talked about Nita, so here’s the rough outline:
Normally by now I’d have figured out what the hell was going on at the museum, but since this isn’t going to be a book, I can just keep noodling around. Why can’t you just noodle around for a book? Because one of the many reasons people read fiction is to get a tidier version of reality. A book that just meanders, listening to people talk, gets annoying very quickly. This stuff is starting to annoy, especially since every scene with Seb in it has the same damn dialogue–Structure Rule #47 You Cannot Arc What You Do Not Know–but I’m getting the impression that you’re reading these more as short stories than pieces of a novel, so that’s good.
Still, I am feeling the need to put some grit in the oyster, so to speak, so when a new character showed up out of nowhere, I noodled. Continue reading
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:
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.
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.
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.
- Why do you need both stories?
- Which one is more important?
- Can you do memory instead of flashback?
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 . . .
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 . . . “
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.