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How to Structure Your Novel: Story Arc and Character Arc

If you’ve read my Pikes Peak blog this month and have come over from that site to continue our discussion of story, then welcome. Here we will get a little more in depth about the issues of story. Unfortunately, people have built entire university classes, how-to books, as well as initiating blood feuds on the proper way to right a book.

First of all, unless your name is George RR Martin, JK Rawlings, or Stephen King, you cannot sit on your high throne telling people how to write books. Please understand this is NOT what I’m doing. I just want to share some insights that I made while writing my first and second unpublished novels.

 

The Story Arc: Three ACT Structure

I have come to believe that the three act structure (or the five act, if you’re doing the Freytag model,) is not only logical, its biological. Our human brains just don’t want to process a story that doesn’t have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s why the vast majority of stories, plays and films follow it. But let’s dig deeper.

Within the three act structure are some hurdles your character must face, or else the story falls flat. Each act has these beats and your character must hit them in order to move the story along.

(Remember, I use Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat organization system, so grab a copy if you want more details.)

 

The Catalyst

This is that moment when the protagonists world changes. She becomes aware of an issue that will push her out of her comfort zone. For Catniss Everdeen, it was the lottery where her sister was chosen. For Luke Skywalker, it was finding the 3d video of princess Leia. The hero or heroine hasn’t decided to go at this point. All that has happened is they are presented with a glimpse into another world.

 

The Call to Adventure, the Debate and its Acceptance.

At some point a wise old person shows up, hints at what may happen next, and gives the call to adventure. Your protagonist isn’t really sure they want to go. They might have loved ones to take care of, or they’re scared of change. Maybe they lack self-confidence and just need to believe in themselves. Regardless of the situation, they need to think about the offer.

Eventually, they accept. (We wouldn’t have a story if they didn’t.) Whether they boldly go, or are timid, or even petrified, the protagonist must choose on their own.

I saw Suicide Squad in theatres, like a lot of people. While it was a fun romp, the story had many flaws. There’s a scene, just about at the end of Act 1 where the characters have micro bombs implanted in their necks to make them compliant.

While I know this is a trope from the comic book, it kills a lot of the story. 1.) These villains aren’t redeemable because they’re forced. 2.) There’s little tension among the team because at no point in time will anyone try to run away after Slipknot. 3.) When their second opportunity for redemption comes around after Col. Flag destroys the remote controlling the bomb, we know its hallow because you can make a pretty good guess that the real bad guy, Amanda Waller, has her own version of that box. Your protagonist has to choose on their own, to be the hero.

 

The Mid-Point

This is where all the marbles are. This is the point where your hero’s true character begins to show. The plot directed threat is either minimized or non-existent at this phase. Any failure is a personal failure and not directly the fault of the antagonist. Any victory is stale and leaves the tastes of ashes in her mouth.

It’s at the midpoint that Roy Hobbs, the hero in Bernard Malamud’s debut novel, The Natural, is riding high on success and fame. He’s even dating the team’s owner’s niece. But it all goes bad. The fame and celebrity turns sour as the team’s winning streak ends.

The midpoint is also where we foreshadow all the bad stuff that’s going to happen to our protagonist, very shortly. She thinks she’s figure it out. That she’s conquered her fears, her enemies and her obstacles. Heh, heh, heh! Boy is SHE IN FOR A SURPRISE!!!!!

Author James Scott Bell wrote a lovely little help-me guide called Write your Novel from the Middle. In it, he says the following:

                                          At this point in the story the character looks at himself. He takes

                                          stock of where he is in the conflict (and) . . . has either of two

                                          basic thoughts. In a character driven story, he looks at himself

                                          and wonders what kind of person he is. What is he becoming?

                                          If he continues the fight of Act II, how will he be different? What

                                          will he have to do to overcome his inner challenges?

                                         The second type of look is more for plot-driven fiction. Its where

                                         the character looks at himself and considers the odds against him.

                                         At this point the forces seem so vast that there is virtually no way

                                         to go on and not face certain death. That death can be physical,

                                         professional, or psychological.

                                                                (Bell, p. 22-23)

 

Most great stories have powerful midpoints where the character is facing an internal challenge. Once the character has figured out why she is really struggling against and fighting for, then we can go back to the external challenge.

 

The Dark Night of the Soul

The Dark Night of the Soul mirrors the midpoint in many ways. But just because it is a reflection of the inner turmoil, doesn’t mean it has to have the same structure. The midpoint, as I wrote on the Pikes Peak Blog, can either be a false victory or a false defeat. Why? Because the space between the midpoint and the Dark Night of the Soul should be real defeat of the protagonist.

Oh, this is also the place where mentors go to die, or at least disappear from the story. Gandalf, Obi Wan, Haymitch Abernathy from The Hunger Games, all leave right after the bad guys strike back.

With a solid loss in their column, their mentor dead or missing, the protagonist must figure out a new way to do things. She has to work it out on their own and come up with a how and a why.

Think of the Dark Night of the Soul as a mirror image of the Catalyst and Debate from Act 1.

Again there world has changed, again they have a choice to continue on or turn back. (or even die.) The must choose.

Like Act 1, Act 2 end only when the character chooses on their own to continue the struggle. Our Heroine will answer this second call to adventure with an affirmative.

 

ACT 3

WE’RE NOT DONE YET!!!!

Now our heroine has to find allies, create a new plan, attack the problem/villain, and win the day! It’s all downhill from here! This is the fun part of the story. Things are coming together. The heroine has learned her lesson and has conquered her internal problems so she can face the external.

This is where the reader gets his payoff for sticking with your story. This is where the satisfying ending comes in! This is where the heroine achieves victory – or not.

Your protagonist could still lose. Tragedies can be fun, too. Three of my favorite movies are Rocky, Glory & the Empire Strikes Back. The protagonists don’t win in any of those films. The story is better for the loss.

Or, how about Gone with the Wind. Scarlet loses the man she loves at the end of that book. (Movie, too.) Yet we know she is stronger for it. We also know she has clarity in her life – for once she is clear that Ashley is not for her.

Or, you could give a bittersweet ending.

Roy Hobbs never plays baseball again at the end of The Natural. While we are saddened for him, we know he is content because he has won Iris and is now a family man.

Just remember, the good guys don’t always have to win.

 

Denouement

NOW I get to impress you with my French! The Denouement is the final scene of the story, after the climax and the resolution of the external struggle, or plot. The word comes from the French word denouer, meaning to untie. It is in the final scene were the tension of the story is resolved. The loose ends are gathered. The questions answered – for good or for ill.

I have read a lot of authors who seem to mail this ending in. The Climax seems to be the real ending to a lot of stories, so this post climax scene sometimes feels awkward to me.

If you’re working on your first story, I challenge you to make this scene memorable. As memorable as the climax where the bad guys get what’s coming to them! Give the reader some peace of mind that the protagonist is finally happy & at peace.

(Unless you want a sequel.)

 

Character Arc

This entire blog post has been about the story arc. The ups and downs of your character. But I hope you noticed something. Every part of the story arc we’ve gone over today, The Catalyst, the Call to Adventure and its acceptance, the Mid-point, the Dark Night of the Soul, the move into Act 3, and the Denouement, can all be used as frameworks for your character arc.

See, a character arc is a set of scenes in your novel. They are a story within your story about how your protagonist grows as a human being. They should have weaknesses that the story exposes. Later on in your story, the bad guys or problems should force the heroine to improve herself or get lost. The six scenes I’ve mentioned earlier perfect opportunities sketch out that character arc.

 

Our Denouement,

Whew, we did a lot today! Before I go, I would encourage you to think about the structure of your story. Now, if you’re a pantser and not a plotter like me, it doesn’t mean you can’t use what I’ve written about in both blogs. As a seat-of-your-pants writer, your plot will be more organic, than structured and that’s OK. Just keep in mind the three act structure as you write your kick ass novel.

I do want to leave you with my bibliography of books I use to organize and write. Here they are:

 

Author Book
Blake Snyder Save the Cat
Blake Snyder Save the Cat goes to the Movies
Blake Snyder Save the Cat Strikes Back
James Scott Bell Write Your Novel from the Middle
Stant Litore Write Characters your Readers won’t Forget

 

 

BONUS BOOK!

Leigh Michaels     On Writing Romance   This book taught me the structure of Romance stories. It was clear and concise with lots of examples. Good stuff!

 

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The Struggle is Real

So I am writing this in my local Panera, on 38th Avenue in Denver, Colorado. Why am I here? Because I am frustratingly slow sometimes when it comes to writing. No. That’s not true. The truth is that I slow down. I get distracted.

I refuse to call what’s happening writers block. In fact, I don’t believe in writers block.

See, my understanding of writers block has to do with not knowing what to write next. But that seems to be a problem for pansters, not planners. (People who write by the seat of their pants. Me, I’m a planner.)

Since I outline every beat, every scene, I know exactly where I’m going. And even when I’m not motivated to write a scene, if I just get in front of a computer screen and do it, the words usually come. Sometimes there in the 1,000-1,200 range. Sometimes there in the 1,500-1,800 range. Sometimes I blow the roof off and write 2,500. But the words do come.

Yet here I am, five months into the first draft of a historical fiction and I’m only half way completed. My goals now are all askew and Nanowrimo is looming.

At the beginning of this year I published a goal of writing four books. Baring a miracle, that ain’t happening. I’m not really angry with myself, or disappointed. I’m just frustrated that I can’t get this together a little faster. These are first drafts.

In addition, my writer life, outside of the actual writing, has been extraordinary the last six months. (I will blog about that later.) I have been amazed and humbled by my greater tribe of writers here in Colorado.

In addition, I have reached out to some agents recently and they’ve been very receptive to what I’ve pitched. People want to read my stories. So it’s frustrating that I can’t (or won’t – self sabotage is an old friend of mine.) write faster.

I do see a pattern, however.

I have attempted three novels. I have done a complete top-to-bottom re-write of one of them, so I guess I could argue that I’ve attempted to write four. In every case I have trouble with the first half of Act 2.

I follow the late Blake Snyder’s screenplay outline called “Save the Cat.” The first half of Act 2 has three parts in it: The B Story, Fun & Games, and the Midpoint. I think I’m getting better at the Midpoint. I think that’s also true for the B Story. (Usually where a love story begins in many films and books,) It’s the Fun & Games, where we see the protagonist in their in their element, doing what they do best, that I struggle with. Each time I write I struggle with this.

I don’t really have an answer here, but I just wanted to share how hard it is to write a book. Even a crappy book requires time, patience, and dedication. Things I am willing to commit on this journey, but things that require effort. If any you have any suggestions, I would be happy to hear them.

Alright, this book ain’t gonna write itself.

A funny thing happened at Critique Group

One of the steps all inspiring writers should take is join a critique group. You bring your current Work In Progress, (known as a W.I.P.,), other people bring theirs. All are read and critiqued.  

My critique group meets on Wednesday night, at a Panera’s Restaurant.

It’s a good experience for a couple of reasons, which I will get into later. Sometimes, though, it can get ugly. Wednesday night, it got ugly for me.

See, I was ambushed by . . . grammar Nazis.

I won’t go into too much detail about my grammar deficiencies, except to say that it was two major things and a couple of smaller issues. I really didn’t have a problem with any of the critiques. They were all correct and I actually learned something. So it was a positive night. However, both readers got surprisingly upset about the whole thing.  

Now in my defense, I was never taught grammar as a distinct course. I just picked up rules as I went along. A lot of the grammar rules I’m breaking have to do with fiction and not essay writing. Since I never took creative writing classes I was never been exposed to these rules.

Look, I get it. You need rules. Especially when you want to be a professional writer. I also admit that I need to learn those rules, and I did learn something new! I guess the thing that amused me the most was their passion for grammar and how important it was to them.

One reader put his hand on my shoulder, looked down on me from his glasses and gave me a reassuring smile, like he was announcing I had cancer or something. He kept apologizing, reassuring me. I guess he thought I would start crying or something?

The woman who critiqued me was a professional editor and was close to being apoplectic. A couple of things she said almost felt like an ultimatum – or threat.

Is it that serious?

I write all this because I am baffled about grammar Nazis, not because of the critique. I should know grammar rules, and I am learning.  

But what drives a person to be so passionate about something that abstract? Is it a form of Gnosticism? Is it a form of elitism? I don’t know.

I don’t care, either.

I should know grammar rules. I am learning them. But it’s about the story. It’s about revealing something about the human spirit, the human character. Grammar is important, but it’s a tool to better storytelling, not a goal unto itself.  

If you’re trying to write a short story, a novella or a full-fledged book, I encourage you to write the best damn story you can. That will include learning grammar, if you don’t already know it. I also encourage you to seek out the grammar Nazis and learn as much as you can.

What you shouldn’t do is be intimidated or scared or be diminished by them. Grammar Nazis are one of the curiosities you will find in the world of writing. They will be next to the traditional publishing snobs, the tinkering amateur who never finishes, the Indy pub zealot, and the Pharisees of Literary Fiction. Talk to them, learn as much as you can. When you see the glint of fevered madness in their eyes, smile and walk away. Whatever you do, finish your book.

In the meantime, please join a critique group! It really is a wonderful experience. A couple of things happen once you join. First of all, you get to be with your tribe. People who love literature and story as much as you do. People who will celebrate your first published story, or commiserate with your rejection letters. You also get to read some amazing stories from every day people. They will read your stories, too. Reading and being read will sharpen your ability to critique your own work, see its flaws and lack of clarity. Finally, you’ll get a thick skin about your writing – which is oh, so vital, in the writing game. I cannot tell you enough how important a good critique group is. It will improve your craft. As author Jeff Goins has said, “Art deserves an audience.”

  

Now excuse me while I go clean up my grammar. This might take a while.

Hanging out with the varsity

When I started my writing journey I was told to do a couple of things. Among them was join a critique group. A critique group is a group of writers who support each other by reading each other’s works and making suggestions about composition, grammar and plot.

About two weeks ago I read my work to my group. Now, I wasn’t expecting applause, or anything like it; what I expected was a mix of positive and negative comments. What I got was mostly negative and it filled me with frustration and a little anger.

Driving home, I spoke with an old friend, who is also writing a book. I whined and complained for twenty minutes about how my critique group was wrong. At the end of the conversation, I asked my friend to read the same section of my book that they had read. He said he would be happy to read it and I thanked him. When we talked a couple of days later I was not prepared for the conversation.

He agreed with my critique group.

To be fair neither the group nor my friend were unkind or personal in their criticisms. They pointed out things that needed work. They were asked for honest opinions and they gave them. But it hurt, a lot.

For the next two hours we had a heated conversation about my writing. I was defensive, confused and, as I wrote above, hurt. I wanted to prove them wrong. I crawled into an emotional ball and felt sorry for myself. I got depressed. I acted like a coward.

It took me a long time to acknowledge the truth of their criticisms; my friend and the critique group were right.

I was never really taught grammar throughout my California public education. I hated English composition classes in junior high and high school, so I just coasted. I enjoyed reading some literature, but writing papers were a mess. What I did learn about grammar, I picked up along the way.

I honestly believed that the hardest part of writing a book was simply finishing. I had tried to write books as far back as 1980, when I was nine years old. Actually finishing one seemed quite a triumph. Hell, it is a triumph. Many people say they want to write a book and never start. Some people start, but never finish. I started and finished, so yeah me!

I thought that the rest of the journey was marketing, networking and selling my book to a publisher. I thought that edits, maybe a minor re-write, might come into the picture. But, a line by line edit and re-write? The thought of it throws me into depression.

So to have my book criticized because of its grammar brought me back to 7th grade English. In 7th grade English, I felt like I was the stupid kid among all of the Gifted & Talented. I felt like I stuck out in some way; that everyone was looking at me. I felt like I didn’t belong in this new tribe I had joined; a tribe of writers.

Hell, sometimes I still feel like I don’t belong. When I’m around writers like Aaron Michael Ritchey and Betsy Dornbusch, I feel like a water boy for the championship football team; yeah, I’m technically part of the team, but I’m here at their pleasure. If I don’t behave I will be exposed for the fraud that I am.

So I don’t tell too many jokes; I don’t brag. I try not to be garrulous, or else the guys on the real team will remind everyone that I’m a fraud; my lettermen’s jacket doesn’t count because my letter has a manager’s patch.

We all have obstacles in life. Things we have to do, but don’t want to do. Events and actions that make us question how we perceive ourselves and our world. Things that fill us with fear; fear of rejection, condemnation and pain. In order to get where we want to go, we need to confront those fears and work past them.

I am not writing anything you, the reader, doesn’t already know. I was just reminded of it in a painful way.

I know one thing though, I know I will get to the mountaintop. I was just surprised at the length of the journey.