I was a born planner.
Every December, I would start planning my birthday party. I’d write out a birthday list, figure out who I would invite, tell my mum the entire deal, and then flounce back to my room to figure out the details.
My birthday? It’s in November.
Looking back at that, it’s a surprise that when I started writing novels, I did it by the seat of my pants. Maybe that’s what happens when an INFJ tries to balance the intuitive with the judger.
I wrote my first two and a half novels (well, two and two halves) without any idea of what would come next aside from a vague sort of picture and once a brief outline. None of them worked. I couldn’t figure out why it took my beta readers months and months and death threats to return any feedback to me.
Nothing really motivated them enough to read my work. I couldn’t fathom why. I thought it was good. Maybe not perfect, but good.
Then about a year ago, I heard of something called “structure.”
For a while, this idea of structure eluded me like trying to catch smoke in a net. All the while, I felt like a really crappy Indiana Jones searching for relics on a waitress’s budget with no passport.
Which was sort of true. Except I have a passport.
It wasn’t until I read Story Engineering by Larry Brooks that something massive clicked in my head, like the giant boulder finding the perfect niche.
My first books didn’t work because they completely lacked structure. Every book, play, and screenplay follows a certain amount of rules. It’s what keeps tension going. It’s what moves the story along. At its core, it is the instinctual resonance of a narrative arc that goes back to the days where we all sat around in caves picking our teeth with splintered femurs while a clan storyteller regaled us with legends and myths and feuds about cows.
Plot and structure are lovers, and good plots have great structure. Amazing plots have exceptional structure.
Most creative people don’t stand up and cheer when someone mentions rules or rigid words like structure. But structure isn’t something with much wiggle room, and once I realised that, I found I had more creative freedom. Not less. Because learning about structure gave me what every wannabe published writer writes for: an audience.
Screenplays work in three acts, but I’m now convinced that novels don’t. Novels are subject to something that I (among more notable authors) like to call the Muddle. The Muddle is what happens when you take a beginning and an end and sit on them. They get squished underneath your bum until there’s just a flat squidgy place in the middle that looks suspiciously like the rear end that indented it.
Because of the Muddle, I like to think of novel structure in quadrants.
Quadrant 1: Bring It On
In the first 20-25% of a novel, we meet the main characters. The time bomb starts ticking, an inciting incident happens, we get a feel for the antagonist, and we get a glimpse of the protagonist’s “normal” before proceeding to pick it up and smash it to bits. (Those things don’t happen in that order.) If these things aren’t present, why would any reader go on?
The inciting incident may or may not be the same as the first plot point (or the break into Act II, as they say in film), but sometimes it is. But when it happens, it must propel the protagonist into a life-altering decision and give the first real glimpse of the antagonist.
Quadrant 2: Flailing in the Waves
After the protagonist’s Big Life-Altering Decision, she starts finding out that what she thought was an inconvenient puddle is really a mire of badness. Quadrant 2 is her reacting, wading in, flailing out, and probably not having the most success. This is also a reason to love the four quadrants as opposed to one big second act — the protagonist’s flailing in Quadrant 2 leads up to the single biggest turning point in the novel: the midpoint.
Halfway through, your protagonist has another decision. This time it has to move her from reacting into being proactive. She has to learn information that forces her to move from lowly, nose-picking protagonist to chest-puffed hero.
Quadrant 3: Take the Fight
The third quadrant pushes the protagonist into fighting back against the aggressors, whether the antagonist is a specific person or many people or a fleet of rabid ants. She might not (probably won’t) always come out on top in these little skirmishes, but she has to try.
Quadrant 3 is your last chance for exposition, your last stand of the big reveals that culminates in your second plot point (or break into Act III — because big reveals after that plot point annoy readers and viewers alike. I think M. Night Shyamalan needs to read Story Engineering. A giant twist 10 pages from the end might seem snazzy, but it does nothing but confuse and cheat your readers.
Quadrant 4: Boom, Bam, Bow
After you bust the door down into this last quadrant, your story ought to be rolling down the hill like an unsupervised Violet Beauregard on an incline. It should roll smoothly toward the climactic final confrontation, and from there into a nice little meadow filled with tied-up subplots and dandelions.
That’s why I turned in my pantser card. While I had enough of a feel for structure to get turning points in the right place, they weren’t as effective because I could never verbalise what made them strong or weak. Knowing what needs to go where freed me up — especially when I started plucking books off my shelves to check up on these things. Pick up great books, and you’ll see that their quadrants all line up almost exactly.
I might not outline the entire book down to its toenails, but I will make sure I know certain things. And because I love you, here’s Emmie’s Magical Pre-Plot Checklist!
- Who is my protagonist, what does she want, and why does she want it?
- Who is my antagonist, what does she want, and why does she want it?
- What is the central conflict of the story? What are three other layers of that conflict?
- What is my first plot point? How will it show the antagonist threat for the first time and goose my character into the next quadrant?
- What is my midpoint? What information will change my protagonist’s goals, mindset, and plan enough to propel her into proactivity?
- What is my second plot point? What information must my protagonist have before the climax? What can shake her and still push her to be stronger? Does she need a “dark night of the soul?”
- What is my climax? How is my protagonist going to beat my antagonist?
This is now my bare minimum for starting on page one — and I prefer to get more in-depth than that, at least when it comes to my characters if not the precise lining out of chapters. If nothing else, it helps avoid the Muddle!
How do you plot? Do you plot? Have you had to deal with the Silence of the Beta Readers? Do you actively think about the structure of your novels, or do you wing it? Does it work? Are you hating me right now?
Thanks for bearing with a long first post — I promise next time I’ll be more succinct.