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Step Six: Outline

We’ve made it! This is it, where you finish your Ultimate Outline of Awesome.

Now that you have your four Acts, neatly divided by your Tentpoles, you can use them as containers for all those handy plot points you came up with for your Hero’s Journeys.

That’s all that this step is, really. Compiling.

You can do it multiple ways. If you just want to bull through and put all your plot points in order in one go, you’re welcome to do so, but the reason I take the time to decide on my Acts and Tentpoles is because it gives me a handy guide and a sort of measuring stick for pacing. It can be unwieldy to try and shuffle 39+ plot points (my last outline had over sixty!) into proper order. However, if I take each plotline and divvy up which points belong in which Act, I can then organize each section individually and ensure none are too short or too long.

(Also, the Tentpoles are pretty distinct signposts, and it’s usually easy for me to decide whether a plot point comes before or after a certain Tentpole.)

So step-by-step, how do we compile? Well, this week you get very detailed instructions for your assignment.


Assignment

1. Sort plot points under the correct Act or Tentpole.

I’ll start with my Acts and Tentpoles like so:

  • Opening
  • Act I
  • 1st Doorway
  • Act II
  • Midpoint
  • Act III
  • 2nd Doorway
  • Act IV
  • Closing

And my list of Hero’s Journey plot points like so:

(Note: […] denotes where I’ve cut content to make this a little less unwieldy.)

  • Public
    • Public 1
    • Public 2
    • Public 3
    • […]
    • Public 13
  • Personal
    • Personal 1
    • Personal 2
    • Personal 3
    • […]
    • Public 13
  • Private
    • Private 1
    • Private 2
    • Private 3
    • […]
    • Private 13

You get the idea.

And through the mighty power of drag-and-drop (if you’re doing this on a computer rather than longhand, but to each their own!), I’ll go through each plotline and sort each plot point under the correct Act or Tentpole. I don’t worry about order within the Acts at this point. This is just straight-up sorting.

2. Organize the plot points inside each Act and Tentpole.

After all the plot points are tucked under the correct heading, then I’ll go section by section and put them in order. You may have duplicate plot points (remember when I said some important scenes could pull double- or triple-duty?), so this is where you can combine the copycats into one. You may have a plot point that actually takes place over several separate scenes—this is where you divide it into however-many new points and sort them into the appropriate Act(s).

So your list winds up looking like this:

  • Opening
    • Personal 1
    • Private 1
    • […]
  • Act I
    • Personal 2
    • Public 1
    • Public 2
    • […]
  • 1st Doorway
    • Personal 3
    • […]

And so on.

3. Look for gaps.

(Hang in there—you’re almost done!)

Now you go through your plot points, line by line, and look for gaps. Maybe one plotline has your main character at home, getting ready for bed, and the next one has them on the run from a mafia hit man in a shopping mall. There should probably be a transition between those two scenes, don’t you think?

I’ll add an empty line to show a gap that needs to be filled. Continue through the list and do this whenever you come across a place that needs a scene (or scenes) to bridge between plot points.

4. Fill in the gaps.

This is where being able to “visualize in fast-forward” comes in handy.

Start at the top of your list and skim down. Imagine the scenes, how they fit together, and when you hit a gap, add in whatever scenes are necessary to get from Point A to Point B. But the key is to do it quickly—don’t get bogged down in details! Fast-forward, not slow-motion.

Things to look for here are:

  • Big gaps
    A big gap means there’s a big area of your narrative where nothing is happening to support your central plotlines. Consider whether you need to shuffle some plot points around to fill in this gap or whether you need to alter your story’s timeline to close this gap.
  • Gaps that have a repeated theme
    Is there a plotline that you haven’t looked at? Consider whether there might be a hidden Hero’s Journey that needs to be worked up and added in. If so, take this chance to create a new Hero’s Journey outline and sort the plot points into the correct places.

(Tip: I use a different color when filling in gaps, so I can easily see what scenes don’t directly relate to my main plotlines.)

“Fast forward” through your outline however many times it takes to close those pesky gaps. There may be quite a few! One novel I have in progress had most of the latter half of Act III as one gaping hole. It took some work fixing that, but I discovered a new plotline that worked to fill in other gaps, so it worked out in the end.

5. Remove the headings (optional)

Once everything is organized, I like to delete the headings and leave myself with a list of my plot points in chronological order. This is the outline I work from when drafting.


Once you’re finished, sit back and bask in a job well done.

Because you have done something awesome, incredible, extraordinary—you’ve created a detailed, multi-layered novel outline, ready to be turned into a first draft.

Congratulations!

Write With Me!

Weekly Writing Wrap Up! Step Five: Acts and Tentpoles

Whoops! Sorry for the delay. But here we are, all the way through Step Five. Can you believe it’s been over a month already?

Soon it will be time to start on the rough draft itself. I may start posting writing exercises or drabbles on here. Comments, opinions?


Opening

The opening scene revolves around Tori’s “allergy” to computers, a key part of the plot that needs to be introduced early, and her isolation at school and home. It’s probably going to be a scene about frying a computer at school due to a substitute teacher being unaware of Tori’s particular quirk. (Her medical files state that she has a genetic condition of some sort, too much metal in her blood, who knows—suffice to say, the teachers and students think it’s bizarre but take it at face value. Let me just put the words PLOT POINT here in big bold letters. Okay? Okay.)

Act I

Act I is Tori’s introduction to the adventure and our introduction to her life. We’ll see her at school, at home, experiencing her usual day-to-day life, and her first introduction to one of the Wyswrii—the “invisible monster” that invades her home (probably Tabak). We’ll also see the inside of her father’s lab, meet the Nanoia, and introduce the other two Wyswrii.

1st Doorway

Tori crosses the threshold into Act II when she rescues the captured Wyswrii and the Nanoia escape confinement. Her father is left behind in the chaos.

Act II

Act II covers Tori traveling with the Wyswrii to the Intergalactic Council Whose Name Is Still Yet To Be Determined. Cue human/alien getting-to-know-you hijinks. She’ll learn the origin and extent of the Nanoia threat, why they’re on Earth, and the Wyswrii’s mission—the ultimate plan to destroy the Nanoia once and for all. Tori meets the Wyswrii’s mentor, Lra-Hna, and learns more about her own “quirk”.

Midpoint

Someone tries to sabotage the Council. The Council wants Tori to remain in custody. Tori stands up for herself, demands to return to Earth with the Wyswrii to save her father.

Act III

Back on Earth, the Nanoia are spreading, unknown to the humans, causing illness and, in some cases, death. Tori and the Wyswrii infiltrate a Nanoia “base” (for lack of a better word). Tori gets more comfortable with her abilities and grows closer with her new scaly friends. They uncover the true nature of the Nanoia’s plan—i.e. Big Bad Things For Everyone Everywhere. They learn the location of the Nanoia Central Core and Tori’s father.

2nd Doorway

The Wyswrii begin their assault on the Core, facing off against those infected by Nanoia, turned into loyal drones.

Act IV

The final battle to stop the Nanoia. Adventure, danger, confrontation, sacrifice, all those lovely things that make your pulse pound.

Closing

… Well, I won’t spoil everything.


Until Monday, lovelies! Next time—Step Six: Outline.

Write With Me!

Step Five: Acts and Tentpoles

In the last step, we talked about using the Hero’s Journey to structure your various plotlines. Today, we’ll learn about using Acts and Tentpoles to structure your story as a whole.

Now, what exactly do I mean by act or tentpole?

An act is a larger chunk of your story, and it can encompass multiple scenes in multiple places. A tentpole is more similar to the climax, where you can zoom in on a particular scene or even a particular second where something changes. When I outline, there are four acts and five tentpoles. Tentpoles (in bold text) divide the acts like so:

  1. Opening
  2. Act I
  3. 1st Doorway
  4. Act II
  5. Midpoint
  6. Act III
  7. 2nd Doorway
  8. Act IV
  9. Closing

Each of the four acts has a sort of theme to it. The Save the Cat! method for screenwriting designates them Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, and Martyr.

  • Act I (Orphan) shows your main character in their ordinary world. They’re somehow alone or out of place.
  • Act II (Wanderer) shows your main character in the early stages of their adventure. They’re exploring, learning the ropes, but they’re still relatively passive, going where the plot pushes them.
  • Act III (Warrior) shows your character taking charge. They know what they’re up against, they understand the stakes, and they’re forging their own path.
  • Act IV (Martyr) shows your character in the final showdown. They will often sacrifice something important in order to achieve victory.

The tentpoles divide up your acts. The name comes from James Scot Bell’s book Super Structure (again, I recommend all of his books on writing). He says to picture the tentpoles like those of a circus tent, holding up the roof. His five tentpoles are Disturbance, the two Doorways, the Mirror Moment (aka Midpoint), and the Final Battle. I use:

  • Opening
  • 1st Doorway
  • Midpoint
  • 2nd Doorway
  • Closing

I put a lot of thought into the Opening scene, trying to choose the optimum place to start the story. It has to be early enough that you can introduce your reader to your world without just chucking them into the center of everything with no explanation whatsoever, yet late enough that they don’t have to slog through entire chapters before things get interesting. It’s not as much of a problem in stories set in modern day Earth, but easing your reader into a completely alien world a la sci-fi or fantasy can be tricky.

The 1st Doorway is when your character moves from Act I to Act II and they do so in such a way that there is no going back to the way things were before. That’s the key characteristic of the two doorways—no take-backs.

The Midpoint is a beat in the center of your story where your character flips from passive to active. Something happens that forces them to take charge—maybe they’ve hit their limit and refuse to be pushed around any more, or maybe they realize exactly how high the stakes are and start fighting in earnest. Maybe they learn something that flips their world on its head.

The 2nd Doorway is just like the 1st Doorway, except your character moves decisively toward the final conflict. You know in video games when your avatar crosses some imaginary threshold, and you’re suddenly locked in a battle with the Big Bad Boss with no way out? The 2nd Doorway is kind of like that.

For the Closing, look for some way you can relate it to your opening scene. I enjoy it when a book comes full circle—when something from the opening is echoed in the ending. It’s not necessary, but it’s a nice sort of crowning touch. A prime example comes from my favorite book, Watership Down by Richard Adams.

First line: “The primroses were over.”

Last line: “… and together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom.”

If you don’t want to go the full-circle route, think of what final image you want to leave your readers with as they finish your story. Leave them with something to savor.

Example

I considered using Avatar again as an example, but I’m seriously afraid you guys might hunt me down and pelt me with rotten fruit if I tried. So we’re going to mix it up. You like How to Train Your Dragon, right?


Opening: Hiccup tells us about living in Berk. “This is Berk. It’s twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death. It’s located solidly on the Meridian of Misery. […] The only problems are the pests. You see, most places have mice or mosquitoes. We have dragons.”

Act I: We see Hiccup’s life in the village—more importantly, we see how he doesn’t fit in. He uses one of his inventions to shoot a dragon out of the sky, but no one believes him. He goes out on his own to search for the dragon and finds it—tied up, helpless. Hiccup could kill the dragon and return to his village a hero, but…

1st Doorway: Hiccup sets the dragon free, and the dragon spares his life.

Act II: Hiccup’s father enrolls him in dragon-fighting training. They tell Hiccup, “a dragon will always go for the kill” but Hiccup knows differently now. Hiccup seeks out the dragon and learns about it, about its injury, names it Toothless.

Midpoint: Hiccup approaches Toothless, throws his weapon away, and reaches out. Toothless approaches and allows Hiccup to touch him.

Act III: Hiccup and Toothless play and learn about one another. Hiccup designs a tail fin to help Toothless fly. After some false starts, Hiccup and Toothless learn how to fly together. They are discovered by Astrid. Hiccup, desperate to keep Toothless safe, kidnaps Astrid (for a little while). Together they fly and see the dragons’ nest. They learn about the monstrous dragon that is keeping all the other dragons in thrall.

Back in the village, facing off with a dragon in the arena, Hiccup tries to prove to the vikings that they don’t have to kill dragons by showing them how he can tame the dragon, but it goes wrong and Toothless bursts in to save Hiccup. The vikings capture Toothless. Hiccup’s father Stoic learns that Toothless can lead him to the dragon nest. Stoic sets out with Toothless chained to his ship and leaves Hiccup behind in disgrace.

2nd Doorway: Hiccup shows the other young vikings how to ride dragons.

Act IV: Final showdown. The vikings face off against the giant monster-dragon. Hiccup and his friends arrive and save the day. Hiccup rescues Toothless and they defeat the monster-dragon, but Hiccup is nearly killed in the attempt. He wakes in the village later and discovers that he lost his foot in the battle. He and Toothless are now matched: Toothless’ tail-fin and Hiccup’s foot. The vikings live a new life alongside the dragons.

Closing: Again, Hiccup narrates. “This is Berk. It snows nine months of the year, and hails the other three. Any food that grows here is tough and tasteless. The people that grow here are even more so. The only upsides are the pets. While other places have ponies or parrots, we have… dragons.”


Assignment:

This week, look at your plotlines and think about how they might divide up into Acts and Tentpoles. Hint: use your Central Change to figure out your Acts and Tentpoles. After you have the basic structure worked out, you can add in all the extra plot points from your supporting changes to fill things out a bit.

But we’ll talk about that more next week, in Step Six: Outline. Until then!

Write With Me!

Step Four: The Hero’s Journey (Part 2)

Last week, we looked at the archetypal Hero’s Journey and how it works as a basic story structure. Here’s a quick refresher:

  1. Ordinary World
    The hero’s everyday life—peaceful yet unfulfilling.
  2. Call to Adventure
    Something disturbs the peace and tells about the story’s central problem.
  3. Refusal of the Call
    The hero can’t or won’t set out to explore the problem.
  4. Meeting the Mentor
    The hero meets someone who tells him about the problem.
  5. Crossing the Threshold
    The hero sets out to explore the problem in such a way that he can’t go back.
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
    The hero learns about the problem through firsthand experience.
    (Midpoint goes here!)
  7. Approach
    The hero is no longer passive—action, not reaction.
  8. Ordeal
    The hero faces a difficult situation that tests his resolve.
  9. Reward
    Overcoming the Ordeal grants the hero some form of reward.
  10. The Road Back
    The hero returns to face the problem.
  11. Resurrection Hero
    The hero overcomes the problem.
  12. Return with the Elixir
    The hero is changed by his journey.

(Disclaimer: Before we get any further, this is the part where I put on my really hokey pirate accent and say, ”But they’re more guidelines than actual rules.” I’ve played with this method of outlining so long that my definition of the steps may be a shade different than the original. It works for me, so I apologize for nothing!)

Now, you may look at this and say, “Okay, you’ve shown us this same list how many times now—doesn’t that mean it’s predictable?”

At first glance, twelve simple steps might seem like too little to build a story on, but that’s where your three changes—Public, Personal, Private—come in. Because the absolute brilliance of the Hero’s Journey isn’t that you can use it just as a simple outline—it’s the fact that the Hero’s Journey is the perfect pattern for how a character experiences change.

Interested? Let me rewrite the twelve steps again, with a twist.

  1. Ordinary World
    The character is unfulfilled with their everyday life.
  2. Call to Adventure
    The character becomes aware of some kind of challenge, but they cannot overcome it unless they change.
  3. Refusal of the Call
    The character can’t or won’t explore the change.
  4. Meeting the Mentor
    The character gains secondhand information about what the change entails.
  5. Crossing the Threshold
    The character steps (or is forced) to explore the change.
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
    The character gains firsthand information about what the change entails.
  7. Approach
    The character begins to accept the change.
  8. Ordeal
    The character faces some challenge that cements the change.
  9. Reward
    Accepting the change grants the character some form of reward.
  10. The Road Back
    The character returns to face the original challenge.
  11. Resurrection Hero
    The character overcomes the challenge due to the change.
  12. Return with the Elixir
    The character experiences their ordinary world from a changed perspective.

I know you guys are sick to the back teeth of seeing Avatar as an example, but we’ve come this far, so I’m going to use it at least one more time.

Remember our three changes?

Public
 Pandora: colonized by humans → freed from humans
Personal:
 Jake: human → Na’vi
Private:
 Jake: loyal to humans → loyal to Na’vi

The cool part? Each one of these changes follows the twelve steps of change.

(Here’s where I whip out my handy-dandy Table O’ Plots for easier visualization.)

Table O’ Plots

 Pandora:
Colonized → Freed
Jake:
Human → Na’vi
 Jake:
Loyal to humans → Loyal to Na’vi
 Ordinary World Jake sees the human colony on Pandora, sees signs of conflict with Na’vi. Jake is a paraplegic human soldier. Jake is a loyal soldier.
 Call to Adventure Jake is lost in the forest, separated from humans.  Jake tries out his avatar body; joyous moment. Jake meets Neytiri (1st Na’vi encounter).
 Refusal of the Call Jake vs. Pandora (fighting/killing animals, trampling plants–violence, not harmony).  Quaritch tells Jake to spy in exchange for “getting his (human) legs back.” Neytiri almost kills Jake, wants nothing to do with him.
 Meeting the Mentor*
  • Quaritch
  • Grace
  • Neytiri
 Crossing the Threshold Jake agrees to learn the Na’vi way of life.  “
 Tests, Allies, Enemies Jake explores Na’vi life while spying for humans.  “
 Approach Jake/Neytiri romance. / Jake is loyal to the Na’vi.
 Ordeal  Hometree destroyed.  Jake outcast from the Na’vi. Jake’s initiation trial (riding a Banshee).
 Reward Jake becomes Toruk Makto to lead the Na’vi.  Jake gains Toruk.  Jake initiated into the tribe.
 The Road Back Na’vi prepare for war.  Jake returns to the Na’vi.  (N/A)
 Resurrection Hero Na’vi defeat humans. / Neytiri defeats Quaritch.  Jake leads the Na’vi to war.  Jake attacks a bulldozer to save a Na’vi sacred grove.
 Return with the Elixir  Pandora freed.  Jake is fully Na’vi.  Jake fully loyal to Na’vi.

(I know it’s a lot to look over. Take your time. There’s no quiz.)

There are several points where all three plotlines overlap. That’s okay! That just means that there are areas of the story pulling double- or triple- duty. It’s also a handy way to keep an eye out for key areas of your plot (more on that later).

Also, note that each plot point can either be a single scene or something demonstrated through multiple scenes. For example, Tests, Allies, Enemies has multiple scenes depicting Jake learning the Na’vi way of life (thought it’s mostly shown montage style).

The twelve step pattern holds true for your subplots as well! The Jake+Neytiri romance subplot hits most if not all of the steps (though I won’t subject you to another chart unless it’s something people want to see).

(Some lesser subplots may only have a few of the points. The Jake+Tsu’tey friendship plot doesn’t really fill all twelve steps, but it still has a definite beginning-middle-end.)

It’s really important at this juncture to choose your main subplots** and only your main subplots for this part of the process—you could do twelve steps for an infinite number of things and wind up with an outline longer than War and Peace. We’re looking for the high points here.

When you take all of these plot points and organize them along a timeline, you get a much more thorough (though not quite complete) outline. We’ll get into that later. For now:

Assignment

  1. Decide on your main three plots/changes as well as any subplots you want to work on.
  2. For each plot, create a twelve steps outline that shows how the plot changes from Beginning → End. You can do a chart like the one above, or you can do them as separate lists. Dealer’s choice!
    (Also, you’re allowed to be vague! No one has everything figured out in the outlining stage. You may get a clearer idea of what’s going on in your story when we get to Step Five: Tentpoles.)

I’ll see you guys this Friday for the Weekly Writing Wrap Up. See you then!


Footnotes

* “Meeting the Mentor” can encompass multiple characters at multiple points through the narrative. I call it a floating plot point since it can land just about anywhere. The key is that your character gains secondhand information from some kind of source. The mentor could even be a book!

**I typically have my three main changes (private, personal, public) and up to three subplots. The subplots are usually relationships—a developing friendship or romance, a friendship that decays into hatred, strangers into family (personal favorite). Getting into more plots than that means that you’re looking at a lot (A LOT) of plot points, and that can be overwhelming. For now, stick with the important ones!

Write With Me!

Step Four: The Hero’s Journey (Part 1)

To most writers, the words ‘Hero’s Journey’ conjure up images of sword and sorcery, magic and grand armies, kingdoms at war, and the standard Orphan Farmboy of Mysterious Lineage Bound by Prophecy to Become the Chosen One and Save the Kingdom.

If you’re one of those people fascinated with how stories work, you might know the steps, from the Ordinary World all the way through Return with the Elixir. You may even have read the work that codified the term, Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. You may recognize the pattern in many popular novels or movies (Star Wars, anyone?).

The Hero’s Journey is a storytelling archetype that has been proven to appeal to audiences. Even though most people assume it’s applicable only to adventure or fantasy stories, the ones featuring Good vs. Evil and grand battles to decide the Fate of the World… it’s really so much better than that.

We’ll get into why I love the Hero’s Journey for outlining in Part 2, but for now, let’s have an introduction to the twelve steps.


Ordinary World

This is your starting point. It seems simple enough. What are things like when the curtain opens on your stage? What is your main character’s life like before everything goes rump-over-teakettle into adventure?

More importantly, what’s wrong with it?

Because that’s the entire point, the core of your story. Something is wrong and must be fixed.

Maybe your character doesn’t fit in (Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon). Maybe he’s got a rotten personality that’s just screaming for some intensive therapy (Scrooge in A Christmas Carol). Maybe there’s a problem in the Ordinary World that he can see but not yet understand (Jake Sully in Avatar). The Ordinary World is where you show your character in his normal habitat and introduce us to the main parts of your story: character, setting, and plot.

The Ordinary World is your leaping-off point before things begin to change.

Call to Adventure

Something is different. This is where you introduce the beginning of the change that will come to your hero’s world (and your hero’s personality). It can be something as innocuous as a strange letter arriving in the mail (a la Harry Potter), as amazing as finding a hidden world inside a wardrobe (Narnia), or as world shaking as being attacked, wounded, and taken prisoner by a terrorist cell (Iron Man). The main thing is that it’s something different, something out of the ordinary, and something that hints at the changes that are to come.

Refusal of the Call

Nobody likes change. Whatever form your Call to Adventure takes, your hero wants nothing to do with it. Or rather, your cast wants nothing to do with it.

Harry Potter is happy enough to trot off to Hogwarts and learn magic (Who wouldn’t be?), but first Vernon Dursley spends days fighting against the growing tide of Hogwarts letters and running away from the ‘freakishness’. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Edmund denies Narnia’s existence, making Peter and Susan believe that Lucy was telling tales. The point is, whatever form your Refusal takes, there is something that prevents your character (or ensemble) from diving headlong into the plot. This creates that magic known as conflict – either your character’s inner conflict as he resists the change or the conflict as he fights against whatever holds him back from the new world awaiting him.

Meeting the Mentor

The term ‘mentor’ has been bandied about until it now conjures up the image of a bearded man, spouting wisdom to wide-eyed youths as they set take their first steps into adventure: Gandalf and Bilbo, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke, Hagrid and Harry Po—Wait, not Dumbledore?

No, in this case, we’re talking about a Mentor as a point in your plot, not as the archetypal Mentor character (which Dumbledore certainly is).

Meeting the Mentor is when your character receives information about the upcoming Change or the New World from an outside source. The Mentor can color your character’s perceptions, sometimes for better or worse. Think of Hagrid, taking Harry on his first foray into the Wizarding World, telling him about You-Know-Who, and warning Harry about the dark depths of Slytherin house. How differently might the books have turned out if Hagrid had let Harry form his own opinions of the houses?

The Mentor gives your character the sitch, the sit-rep, New-Worlds-for-Newbies-101. He explains things that your character could not easily learn on his own and helps your character orient themselves in relation to the New World. (He’s also a sneaky way to “tell, not show” in your story, especially for those pesky elements that are going to be deucedly hard to explain without some form of outside help.)

There can also be more than one Mentor. In Avatar, Jake Sully learns about Pandora from the Na’vi-sympathetic Dr. Augustine as well as from the ruthless human general. Each has a Mentor position, but Jake has to explore the New World and make his own judgements… which is the whole point of the journey, after all.

Crossing the First Threshold

The First Threshold is a very special place in the narrative that has two key characteristics. 1) Your character moves decisively into the New World. 2) Your character does so in such a way that it is impossible for things to go back to the way they were.

All four Pevensie children enter Narnia through the wardrobe. There’s no denying Lucy was telling the truth any longer. Moreover, they learn of Mr. Tumnus’ abduction and the White Witch’s evil reign… and Edmund abandons his siblings to go to the White Witch. There’s no going back, not until they rescue Edmund.

In Iron Man, Tony Stark sees that the terrorists are using Stark weapons, and he takes the first steps to fight back: creating the first miniaturized arc reactor and installing it in his chest, forging the Mark I armor, and fighting his way out. Yinsen, his Mentor, dies in the attempt, and if Tony fails, the terrorists will kill him as well. It’s do-or-die, and it’s Tony’s first steps to take responsibility for his company.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

Your character is in the New World. This is the section often known as the dreaded Second Act, the long, bland no-man’s land that so many authors dread.

Your character received second-hand information of the New World from the Mentor. Now he gets to explore it for himself.

This is Harry in his classes at Hogwarts, unravelling the mystery around the forbidden corridor. This is Jake Sully, learning the ways of the Na’vi. This is Luke, exploring the Force. The key is that your character explores and, most importantly, learns the skill or knowledge that will help him overcome the final problem of the novel.

Why does this seem so insurmountable? For me, it usually falls into one of two categories: loss of momentum or possibility paralysis.

You’ve spent a quarter to a third of your book propelling your character out of his rut in the status quo and giving him a good, solid boot in the butt to get him over that first threshold… and now what? The momentum just peters out. This is where you need to introduce a new conflict, stat, or else risk losing your readers’ interest in the lull.

With possibility paralysis, you have too many options open to your character. You need to add direction – a desire, a pursuer, anything to get your character up and moving again.

In either case, this is where it is handy to have a good grasp on the main problem of your story and on your desired ending. When things get muddled, knowing exactly where you’re aiming to end acts like a beacon in the darkness, helping to point you in the right direction.

BONUS STEP: Midpoint

In Write Your Novel from the Middle, James Scott Bells extolls the virtues of the Midpoint at length. I love it because it is one of the best signposts for story structure. I’ll go into more detail about it when we get to the discussion about acts and tentpoles, but for now, suffice to say that the midpoint is where your character flips from passive to active.

Approach

This is the latter half of the learning process. This is when your character has learned enough about the New World that he can form his own opinion and, more importantly, change his approach to the problem.

Jake Sully realizes that he values Neytiri and the Na’vi over his place with the humans. Harry, Ron, and Hermione learn that Fluffy is guarding the Philosopher’s Stone and that it’s in danger. More than that, when they approach McGonagall to warn her, they are rebuffed, and they choose to take matters into their own hands in order to protect the stone. Tony Stark builds the Iron Man armor and sets out on his journey to reclaim control of his life and his company.

Your character has begun to change, but he’s not quite there yet.

Ordeal

The Ordeal is what cements the change in your character. It’s a situation where the only way for your character to emerge is by accepting the change and accepting what it means.

Sometimes the Ordeal is part of the final showdown or the last problem, like in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, where the Ordeal consists of Harry, Hermione, and Ron working their way through the puzzles protecting the Philosopher’s Stone. Each of them has to use their strengths and skills they have learned in school in order to get through: Harry’s quidditch skills, Ron’s chess skills, and Hermione’s problem solving skills. This leads directly into Harry’s solitary confrontation with Quirrell.

Other times, the Ordeal takes place well before the final problem, such as in Avatar (again, sorry). The Ordeal in Avatar is fairly long: the attack on Hometree, Jake’s repudiation by Neytiri, the scientists’ imprisonment and their subsequent escape, Dr. Augustine’s injury – all culminating in Jake’s desperate effort to ride Toruk to win his way back into the Na’vi.

The Ordeal forces your character to choose sides, to pick which path they will take. You might consider it like the refiner’s fire, burning away the last bits of their old doubts, leaving them certain as to what they have to do.

Reward

The Reward varies greatly. After the Ordeal, your character will have a payoff of some sort. That payoff may be purely mental, the quiet assurance that they are doing the right thing or the stone-cold determination to keep on fighting until they win. Usually, there is something physical – either a symbol of the mental change or some sort of talisman that will aid him on his quest.

Harry Potter receives a talisman, the potion that will let him go forward and confront Quirrell. Jake Sully receives Toruk and regains his place among the Na’vi to lead them to war.

Susan and Lucy, after the Ordeal of witnessing Aslan’s sacrifice and waiting beside his body through that long night, find Aslan returned to life. More than that, they ride him to the White Witch’s castle where they help Aslan free all the poor unfortunates that the Witch had turned to stone. Their reward is both Aslan and an army with which they can turn the tide of the final battle and save their brothers.

The Road Back

The Road Back can be long or short, depending upon how close together your Ordeal and final confrontation are. It’s a relatively straightforward section of the story featuring the final preparations for the final confrontation. It’s the short breath of calm before the storm.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the Road Back is the brief moment where Harry steps past the final barrier of fire, leaving his friends behind, to confront Voldemort alone. In Avatar, the Road Back is the period of time between Jake returning to the Na’vi as Toruk Makto and the final confrontation with the soldiers.

Note that while the time in the story world varies widely (short minutes for Harry Potter and long days for Jake), the time for the audience is short in both examples. Your hero has changed and matured to face the final challenge. There are no more discoveries to be made, and excitement is running high — don’t let the Road Back turn into another detour.

Resurrection Hero

It’s the final confrontation. The boss battle. The armies are locked in combat, and the hero’s companions have faced off with their own adversaries. Everything rides on the outcome… and it all comes down to your hero.

No matter how big the army or how skilled the companions, there comes a point where the conflict hinges on the actions of your hero. Harry versus Voldemort for the possession of the Philosopher’s Stone. If Harry fails, not only will he die but Voldemort will return to power and dominate the Wizarding World. There is no one else who can save the day. Moreover, Harry is uniquely able to do so, using the protection left by his mother’s sacrifice in order to defeat Voldemort.

Resurrection Hero, like most of the other steps, can be subverted. In Avatar, Jake does fight face-to-face with the human general, using all the skills that he has learned over the course of his Change, but Jake loses. Neytiri takes up the fight and is the true victor, avenging the wrongs done to her people.

The important part is that the large battle and the large stakes ultimately be decided by the actions of one (or a few). The more you can sharpen your focus, the better. Zoom in on your final battle, less characters and less time, until you can pinpoint the exact place and moment that the battle is ultimately decided.

Return with the Elixir

The battle is over. Your hero has won the day (or lost, or won and lost for a nice bittersweet ending), and now it’s back to life as usual, aka the Ordinary World.

Yep. Right back where we started.

Sometimes literally. The Pevensies return from Narnia to resume their lives as schoolchildren, but all of them have changed inwardly. They’ve learned about adventure and responsibility and loss. Their Elixir is that new maturity, though their world remains the same.

Sometimes it’s back to the original Ordinary World, but that world has changed. At the end of How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup’s world changes. The viking accept the dragons into their lives, creating a new Berk, one that accepts Hiccup just as he is.

And sometimes your hero returns to an ordinary life on a new world completely. Jake Sully joins the Na’vi permanently, transfering his consciousness to his avatar body to begin a new life.

The point is, something — perhaps many things — has changed for the better, be it within your character or all around him. Here at the end, you can leave your hero safely in his changed life, until you’re ready for him to set out on his next Hero’s Journey.


Take some time and think about your concept and how your plot may line up with some of these steps. Don’t worry about creating a step-by-step outline. Just let the ideas begin to simmer.

Next time, we’ll discuss where the Hero’s Journey gets really interesting, and I’ll show you exactly how I use it for my outlines. That’s where the fun begins.

I’ll see you next time!

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Step Three: Climax

Okay, this is going to be a little weird. I had a brain bloop and forgot that this step came before Hero’s Journey. At the same time, Climax and Hero’s Journey are very much intertwined. So, we’re going to have an odd-duck week.

We’ll have Step Three: Climax today, Step Four: Hero’s Journey (Part One) this Friday, and Hero’s Journey (Part Two) next Monday, and we’ll all reconvene next Friday for a look at the results of our hard work.

With that out of the way, on to Step Three!


You’ve got an idea of your road, you know your travelers, now it’s time to look at the destination.

Remember, whatever you brainstorm to be the climax of your story isn’t something that’s set in stone. It’s more like looking at a map, giving you an idea of which direction you need to be heading. If along the way you find a better destination, change course and head that way instead.

For this part, we’re looking for the main climax of your story plus the smaller climaxes for your supporting changes. If you look carefully, you’ll find that often the outcome of each change hinges on one small, deciding moment. Even with the main climax, the moment where the public change is resolved (a time when there’s typically a lot going on), you can still zoom in and find that pinpoint moment where things flip from almost-defeat to victory.

In Lord of the Rings, the climax is the final showdown against the armies of Mordor, where all the free peoples of Middle Earth have banded together to fight for their world, a lot of characters in a lot of showdowns for high stakes… but the deciding moment is when the One Ring is destroyed in Mount Doom.

In Star Wars: A New Hope, the rebellion has fought desperately to allow the x-wing pilots to reach the vulnerable exhaust port of the Death Star. Pilots have died on both sides, time is running out. Just when things look hopeless, the Millenium Falcon returns, saving Luke from Vader and clearing the way for Luke to make that one-in-a-million shot. The deciding moment is the millisecond that Luke’s shot hits the exhaust port.

Each supporting change will have its own climax, too, though nothing as spectacular as that of the central change.

Let’s go back to Avatar, which we looked at last week to demonstrate different kinds of changes in one story. (I know some of you are probably sick of examples from Avatar, but it’s an easy movie to break down structurally, so I’ll probably come back to it. I apologize in advance, and I promise to be thinking about other examples to broaden my repertoire.*)

The three changes in Avatar are:

Public: 
Pandora: subjugated by humans --> freed from humans
Personal:
Jake: human --> Na’vi
Private: 
Jake: loyal to humans --> loyal to Na’vi

If you look for the three moments that mark the end of each change, they’re fairly clear-cut.

Public:

In the final battle, the ship carrying the explosives to destroy the Na’vi’s refuge is destroyed, which could be the deciding moment, except that the human general is still alive, and he’s hunting Jake. Here is a character who will not bargain, will not bend. Even if he were captured and sent away with the rest of the humans, he would fight every step and leap at any opportunity to return to Pandora and destroy Jake and the Na’vi. The battle is not over until his death—the deciding moment.

Personal:

Jake is fully Na’vi at the end of the movie, after his consciousness is permanently transferred into his Avatar body. The moment the transfer is successful and he opens his eyes is the deciding moment.

(You could argue that he is Na’vi the moment he returns from his exile riding Toruk, which marks his full acceptance back into the Na’vi and leads to their uprising against the humans, but one of the hallmarks of these split-second deciding moments is that there’s no going back after that point. The One Ring can’t be magically recovered from the magma; the Death Star’s exhaust port can’t unexplode. Even when he becomes Toruk Makto, there still remained the possibility that Jake could give up his avatar body and live on as a human. Only when he gives up that option is he fully Na’vi.)

Private:

After Jake and Neytiri bond, there’s a scene when the humans have sent massive machines, basically uber-bulldozers on super-steroids, through the forest on a path that will destroy a grove of trees sacred to the Na’vi. Jake tries signaling them to stop, but they ignore him and continue forward. Jake attacks the navigational camera on one of the lead machines to stop it—his first act for the Na’vi, against the humans. From that point on, he’s arguing, struggling, fighting for the Na’vi. Deciding moment.


Assignment

For now, start thinking about the deciding moments for each of your three changes—most importantly, the central change, which will be the climax of your story. This will give you a target that you can write toward while working on the rest of your story. Keep this in mind while we go over Step Four: Hero’s Journey, and we’ll reconvene next Friday to see what comes out of our hard work.

I’ll see you this Friday for Step Four! Have fun!

Footnotes

*If you’d be interested in seeing plot breakdowns of popular books or movies, I’m happy to take suggestions (provided it’s something I’m familiar with). Feel free to chime in!

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Weekly Writing Wrap Up!

WE HAVE A WINNER!

The people have spoken, and the people want giant alien lizards.

leezard
Excellent choice.

Thank you for voting! Now, onward to our Weekly Writing Wrap Up: Step Zero and Step One.


Step Zero: Concept

Since you already know the barebones concept already, here’s some extra details.

A. Nanite infestation that is slowly taking over the world, infecting humans and using them as puppets. Prolonged infection leads to mental/physical degradation and/or coma (still debating). Maybe coma is temporary after initial infection while nanites reproduce.

B. Giant alien lizard warriors. That is all. (Not really. They’re bounty hunters and/or soldiers of some sort, three brothers though not necessarily by blood. They can camouflage a la chameleons and can be practically invisible unless they move.)

C. Main character: Tori, teenage girl with a “computer allergy” (rather, electronics are allergic to her; anything with a microprocessor tends to fritz when she comes near). Father is a scientist, mother missing. She’s usually alone, since her father is a workaholic. Has a pet black cat, possibly with kittens.

Those are the seeds. Now we’ll just have to see what sprouts!


Step One: Plot

Public
Nanoia: threat --> neutralized

The Nanoia are either already spreading or will shortly begin spreading at the beginning of the story. Humanity will be, for the most part, ignorant of the threat, thinking that maybe it’s some kind of newly mutated disease.

Personal
Tori + lizards: strangers --> family

The lizards track Tori because of Plot Related Reasons* and eventually rescue-nap her (like kidnapping, but from a life-threatening situation). Things start out scary, get awkward, get even more awkward, and slowly morph into interspecies fluffy friendship fun-times.

Private
Tori: obedient --> assertive

Tori has been raised to stay out of the way, take care of herself, and intrude on her dad as little as possible. That’s going to have to change. *grin*

Thanks for reading! We’ll reconvene on Monday for Step Two: Character. Until then!

Footnotes

*I’m debating how much detail to put in these posts. I already know some plot twists/reveals that will shape the story, and I want everyone to be able to follow my process, but I also don’t want to ruin the suspense. Feel free to chime in with suggestions.

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Step One: Plot

A quick note before we get to Step One.

The first three steps are like the holy trinity of plotting: Plot, Main Character(s), Climax. (Or to put it another way: Road, Traveler(s), Destination.)

I work on any of these three when I’m starting out, or even all three at once. I’m starting with Plot for this experiment because everything else ties into it, but if you would like to go ahead and brainstorm about your main character or the climax (aka the end of your story where cool stuff happens aka the Ultimate Final Showdown of Badassery™), you go right on and have fun playing in your new sandbox.

Now, onward!


For Step One, we’re going to be deciding the private, personal, and public changes that will form the core of your story; determining which of these is your central change; and looking for the supporting changes or subplots that flesh out your story.

In my post Plot = Change, I talked a bit about recognizing the central change of a story and how I diagram changes.

Examples:

Subject: Beginning → End
Lord of the Rings

One Ring: Discovered → Destroyed

Let’s look at the movie Avatar (the blue aliens one, not the terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad airbender one).

WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS. You have been warned!

To recap, Avatar is a movie about a paraplegic soldier (Jake) who travels to an alien planet (Pandora) where he gets to mentally ride around in a hybrid human-alien avatar Because DNA That’s Why. He’s mentored by a scientist (Dr. Augustine) studying the local inhabitants (Na’vi). He eventually falls in love with a local (Neytiri) and leads the native inhabitants to rebel and kick the humans off their pretty, psychic planet.

So, from the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie, what are the main things that change?

Pandora has been invaded and colonized by humans. → Pandora is freed from the humans.

Jake Sully is human, soldier, loyal, follower. → Jake Sully is Na’vi, Toruk Makto, rebel, leader.

Neytiri distrusts/hates Jake. → Neytiri trusts/loves Jake.

Dr. Augustine dislikes Jake. → Dr. Augustine is friends with Jake.

Tsu’tey dislikes Jake.→ Tstu’tey and Jake call one another “brother”.

There are others. These are just the first few that come to mind.

When I’m creating plots, I look for three changes to start with: private, personal, and public. (This comes from Plot & Structure  by James Scott Bell, who is pretty much the guru of storycraft. I highly recommend his books if you’re looking for more references on plotting.)

You know that saying “change starts within”? That’s what we’re going for here. The private change that occurs inside your main character enables the personal change that affects your main character’s personal life which leads to the public change that affects your character’s world.*

Let’s look at Avatar again. If you diagramed personal/public/private changes, you might wind up with something like this:

Public

Pandora: colonized by humans → freed from humans
Personal

Jake: human → Na'vi
Private

Jake: loyal to humans → loyal to Na'vi

This is a pretty simplistic summary. Plotting is definitely more art than science. There will always be multiple ways of looking at the same story, but you get the idea here.

Now, can you spot the central change? Remember that the central change is what kicks off the story and what closes the story (usually, but that’s a post for another day). Avatar has a pretty clear central change.

The movie begins with Jake leaving Earth, alone, after the death of his twin brother.

The movie ends the moment that Jake is permanently transferred into his avatar body, surrounded by the Na’vi and with Neytiri at his side.

Central Change

Jake: human → Navi

You could even diagram it as:

Jake: alone → family

Again, you may perceive the changes differently. That’s okay. When you analyze a completed work, there are so many different layers that work together that it’s hard to narrow a change down to a summary of just a few words. When you’re writing a story, however, coming up with ideas in this style gives you a jumping off point to build your own layers.

So this week for Step One, look for those three main changes in your story, public, personal, and private. One of those changes will be the central change.

(Hint: it’s usually the public change, but it could be the personal change, as you can see in Avatar. I won’t say it’s impossible for it to be the inner change, but it’s unlikely—the inner change is the catalyst that allows the personal and public changes to happen, and usually it’s complete before the story’s climax.)

Also look for supporting changes: characters who change their attitudes or beliefs, who become friends or enemies or lovers.

Assignment:

  1. Public, personal, and private changes
  2. Which is your central change? Think about how your story begins and ends.
  3. Subplots

I’ll see you on Friday for the WWM Weekly Wrap-Up! And maybe we’ll finally have a definitive answer from our concept poll. Until then!


Footnotes:

*This does not mean that the public change has to affect Life, The Universe, and Everything, to quote Douglas Adams. It just means that the public change has ramifications for people or places that the main character has no personal attachment to. In The Lion King, Simba’s reclamation of Pride Rock is a victory for him (private), for his pride (personal), and for all of the animals who were suffering because of Scar’s greed (public).

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Plot = Change

Today, a brief word on what I mean when I talk about plots.

In a word, a plot is change. That’s going to be the one of the key things to remember. Books have lots of plots, lots of changes, but typically they’re all twined together into one larger plot, like smaller strands woven into a braid.

When I’m plotting, I try to look for the central change that will be the heart of my story. (And I also make a very real effort to KISS—Keep It Simple, Stupid—because this is one part where getting down to the nitty gritty details too early in the game will drive you six kinds of bonkers.)

I like to diagram changes like so:

Subject: beginning → end

Usually the central change of a story is defeating the Big Baddie. Here are some examples from popular stories.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Quirrel/Voldemort: undercover at Hogwarts → defeated (temporarily)
Star Wars: A New Hope

Death Star: threat → destroyed

I say that the central change is usually defeating the Big Baddie because plots are like ogres and onions—they have layers. So, looking at Lord of the Rings, if the central change were defeating the Big Baddie, the diagram would look like this:

Sauron: threat → defeated

Don’t get me wrong. Defeating Sauron is a major focus of Lord of the Rings, but it’s not the central change. The central change starts the book and ends the book*. Sauron has been a threat for hundreds of years (thousands of years? I’m not up on my Middle Earth timelines), but Lord of the Rings doesn’t start way back then. It doesn’t even start with the Battle of the Last Alliance. It starts in the Shire.

It starts when Bilbo leaves the One Ring to Frodo. It starts when Gandalf realizes exactly what “Bilbo’s funny magic ring” really is.

Lord of the Rings

One Ring: rediscovered → destroyed

And the central change doesn’t have to be defeating evil at all. Toy Story’s central change is about Woody and Buzz’s relationship.

Woody + Buzz: rivalry → friendship

That central change influences other secondary changes, like being separated from Andy → being reunited with Andy, or Buzz believing he’s a real space ranger → accepting he’s a toy (and being okay with that).

So next time you’re reading a book or watching a movie, take a moment to consider the beginning of the story and the end of the story and see if you can spot the changes—in a character’s personality, the environment, society, politics, the possibilities go on and on—and consider how they influence one another.

Think of it as an exercise for your writer’s brain. The more you do it, the easier it will get, and the more ideas you’ll have for your own plots.

Footnotes

*Lord of the Rings gets special mention because the central change—destroying the One Ring—doesn’t end the book. There’s an entire hobbit-only adventure at the end where Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin have to retake the Shire, because Saruman is a vindictive old word-I’m-not-allowed-to-say-in-front-of-impressionable-youth. If Tolkien had consulted modern writing instructors who favored the One Plot To Rule Them All approach**, they probably would have told him to cut that section entirely, put it in a sequel, or find a way to save the Shire before defeating Sauron, just to neaten up the structure. I guess the takeaway is that if you’re good enough at what you do, you can tell the rules to go hang.

**There are books that have several central changes which all happen in a kind of overlapping structure, but Lord of the Rings doesn’t really fall under this umbrella either since it’s 95% Destroy the Ring and 5% Reclaim the Shire. I’ll discuss this more later, but for now we’ll focus on books with just the one central change.***

***I may be overdoing footnotes a bit. I regret nothing.