Points to ponder as you write about your personal passion in three acts.
Focus on Fiction
Your Passion in Three Acts
A great deal of this material is quoted directly from Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, published by F+W Publications, Inc., 2004. I highly recommend that you consider purchasing a copy of this book for your writing reference library. I'm sharing only parts of this great writing assistance source.
Editors and agents want it both ways. They’re looking for a fresh original voice within the confines of what’s already been done.
Pass Bell’s Pyramid over your narrative as an editing stage in your writing process. Explore your passion in your novel and its topic, consider the potential your book offers, and verify your precision about expressing your goals in this work. Have you given enough details? Can you add more to help the reader see things more clearly.
At the base of your pyramid is passion. You’re going to spend a lot of time with your plot and characters Writing as novel takes months, sometimes years, so you need a strong level of passion for your work to sustain you through the long haul.
Publishers reject many novels because they fall into the cookie cutter category. It’s just exactly like another, probably popular book. Your originality is strength. Some beginning writers have read something that inspired them and they said, “I can do that.” A writer reads a book, becomes inspired, and wants to write a novel to produce that feeling in his work. That’s fine, just make sure you don’t reproduce exactly what you just read. We all want to give our readers a feeling of satisfaction when they finish reading our books.
Passion is important for our artistic soul! As writers, we must nourish and nurture ourselves individually. Only when we are passionately inspired do we rise above the commonplace.
“Work with all your intelligence and love. Write freely and rollickingly as you were talking to a friend who loves you. You have permission, and the right, to beat down any naysayers you come across. Surround your writing with positive people and the positive thoughts you can generate yourself. You will come to know your strengths; if you don’t already. Creative imagination should be celebrated daily. However, don’t let your imagination celebration get in the way of your creative productivity.
Specifically, what I mean is that a celebratory bottle of wine for one won’t necessarily improve your creativity. Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure devotes a page on how not to get ideas. Besides alcohol, he includes drugs, recreational drugs (even caffeine), and excessive stress as the way to NOT write a story.
A healthy writer is a happy writer. Take care of yourself physically and emotionally. Take your vitamins, and drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water every day. That’s a gallon, and sodas don’t count as liquid toward your gallon goal. Adults generally need to aim for eight hours of restorative sleep every night. Do you have an evening “wind down” routine? Tired writing will never be your best. When you need to take a break to clear your mind, get outdoors for a walk. Getting your heart rate up does get your heart beating faster. Strive to know yourself, and be firm in your conviction to be a writer. Nurture your ability to live and enjoy life in moderation. You’re still allowed a well deserved pat on the back—because nobody knows what you’re putting yourself through but you.
Consider the probability of your idea reaching a reading audience. Assume the role of a potential investor in your project. Somebody with money, a publishing company or you, yourself, will have to invest money for your book to be published. Evaluate your work critically, the way a potential investor would.
Does an 800-page fictional rendition of a few years of your life have much of an audience, besides your friends and family? Do a little market research.PublishersWeekly.com is a great place for reading previews of soon-to-be-released books. In the newspaper Sunday edition, you should be able to find the New York Times Best Selling list, and perhaps even a local listing of best selling fiction and non-fiction. These are all great avenues to check out the competition.
Considerable value resides in the author’s original thought and vision. Don’t copy another’s material without asking for and receiving permission. When you do use someone else’s words, make sure they are in quotations, and are annotated correctly in either the MLA or other form. In fiction, it’s best not to copy at all because writing is a creative art. Know your genre, the category of fiction you are writing in. In addition to the genres listed in the drop down list when you create an item, check writing contest websites to see what sort of fiction they are wanting. WritersDigest.com has an annual writing contest with fiction, non-fiction, and poetry categories. Looking into contest rules will also give you an idea of the word count you are aiming for. Know your genre, sub-genre, and personal writing style. Consider the size of your potential audience as well.
Looking into your potential audience market is a “tool” not a “rule”. If you spend many hours composing every day, considering your audience may help you find the best voice for your story.
Be precise when you come up with your plot goals. Being passionate about your idea, and reasonably sure of the number of readers your book will target and draw will give you confidence as you write. Keep your audience in your head, or better yet, post them on your wall. Make a giant poster that says “audience” and fill in your readers faces with cutouts from magazines. Post your poster where you can see it when you write.
When you edit at the end (of a day’s work or a book’s worth of writing), trim away the fat. Go back. Read what you have written and edit out/remove/delete any story threads that are not related to the goal of your book. Most tangents aren’t productive toward resolving your conflict goal.
If the plot is intended for a suspense audience, aim your writing right at them. Give them what they expect, and more. However, DO NOT use a section of narrative that interferes or distracts from your goal. Help keep your reader focused on your main narrative, and don’t lead him into too much confusing information all at once. You don’t want your reader to be at loose ends. You want your reader so far “in” to your story that he loses track of his reality and time.
Exercise 1 . . .
Apply Bell’s Pyramid to the work in progress you’ve chosen to work on further. Or you may have started from nothing a few weeks ago. Is there enough passion, potential, and precision to make you want to continue work on this particular writing project. Only you know the answer, and only you know why you feel passion slipping away from your story. Tell what you’ve discovered in this process.
The Three-Act Structure
”Robin Hood went riding.
A bad guy came.
This abbreviated version of Robin in Hood and His Merry Men was written by Bell’s nephew at an early age. After spelling corrections and some coaching, Bell said he considered the work a novel, because it filled all the simple qualifications. It narrates a story and it is written in complete sentences.
Plot is about elements, those things that go into the mix of making a good story even better. Structure is about timing—where in the big mix do all the elements go? If we are talking about a book’s connection to the reader, we have to consider structure.
The three-act structure has been around since before Aristotle sat down to figure out what makes drama. The three-act structure works well because readers, and those who read less, are accustomed to threes in life. Three strikes and you’re out. We are born, we live, and then we die. We get up and get ready for work. We work our “eight hour shift.” Then we go home and do whatever till it’s time for us to go to sleep.
We live our lives in three-acts, with the middle section accounting for the most activity. That’s also a good plan for writing a novel. There is something fundamentally sound about thethree structure.
According to Buckminster Fuller, the triangle is the strongest shape in nature (hence he used the pyramid shape is the foundation of a geodesic dome he invented).
Almost all good jokes are built on a structure of three—the set up, the body, and the punch line/payoff. It is never just an Irishmen and a French man who walk into a bar. You have to add an Englishman for the joke to work.
In a novel, we must communicate some information and background in Act I before we can move on with the story. Then, the problem/conflict is presented, and the author spends the greater part of his time wrestling with the problem/conflict (Act-two). The book has to end some time, with the problem solved (Act-three).
The three-act structure endures in literature because it works. If you decide to ignore the guidance of a three-act structure, you increase the chance of reader frustration. This structure works because it helps the reader get “in” to the story.
Another way to refer to the three-act structure is to call the three parts the beginning, the middle, and the end. As writers, we want our fiction drafts to hold our entire story together with the best beginnings, the best middles, and the best ends.
”Robin Hood went riding.”
Beginnings are about the who of the story. The entry point is a Lead character, and the writer needs to connect the readers to the Lead character as soon as possible.
These are some of the tasks the writer should include in Act I/the beginning:
~~ Present the story world—tell us something about the setting, the time, and place your reader into the context of “what’s happening”.
~~ Establish a tone that your reader can rely on to be there throughout the entire book. Is this story a sweeping epic like Gone With the Wind. Is it more likely to appeal to women, men, or teens? Is your story action packed, or does the story move along because of changes in your characters? Is your pace fast, or do you expect the reader to traverse your book more leisurely? The realization of this concept will give you writing confidence. When you have written enough to see your own personal style develop, stick with it. Keep the same style in every chapter.
~~ Compel the reader to keep turning pages, and keep reading until his reading gets him to the middle/act-two of the story. Why shouldn’t your reader want to read on? If you have included scenes that do not deal with the goal of your story, edit them out. A section that’s boring/not compelling may lose your readers. When your reader sets the book down, make sure you have set up some questions for him to think on and wonder about. Give him a reason to return to your book soon. Build in anticipation.
~~ Introduce the opposition. Who or what wants to stop the Lead from achieving his goal?
The major part of the novel is the confrontation, a series of battles between the Lead and the Opposition. The middle is also where sub-plots blossom, adding complexity to your narrative. This section of the book requires that the writer include aspects requiring reflection, and getting your reader more deeply into the conflict/problem. Leave this part out, and you’ll disappoint your reader, and yourself when you receive a “no thanks” letter from a potential publisher. Bring in elements that make your reader attach emotionally to what he is reading, and personally experiencing through his own Personality Filter.
The various plot strands should weave in and out from one another, creating a feeling of inevitability, while at the same time surprising the reader in various ways:
~~ Deepen character relationships.
~~ Keep the reader caring about what happens.
~~ Set up the final battle that will wrap things up at the end.
The last part of the novel gives us a resolution of the big story.
Other jobs of Act-three/the End:
~~ Tie up all loose ends. Are there story threads that you have left dangling? Resolve this problem in a way that does not distract from the main plot line. Another option is to go back an edit out those unfulfilled threads. Readers have long memories, and someone will catch a tangent that doesn’t follow the plot line.
~~ Generate a feeling of resonance, like a memory echo. The best endings leave a sense of something beyond the confines of the book. What does your story mean—in the larger sense?
Exercise 2 . . .
Analyze some of your favorite movie rentals or novels with a view of trying to understand their three-act structure. When you can recognize structure in another’s plot, you are focusing on elements of writing you need to understand and use.
Then focus your writing time on the development of your plot and characters, Anwering the questions that accompany the readings will lead you entirely through the process of writing a structured work of fiction, whether it’s a short story or a long novel.
Exercise 3 . . .
If you have not yet begun a story, a novella, a narrative, NOW is the time to do it. So far in this workshop we've learned Scott Bell's inside tips for getting a structure, and getting your ideas organized, and getting the plot going. If you don't know where to start, start with your main character, set his or her goal, and then start bringing in complications.
Some students do already have a manuscript started. Exercise three is to begin your story if you haven't. Please send a link of your rough draft to patrice@ writing.com by next Tuesday, or later if it takes you longer. This is you chance, Jump on it! Go for it! Write on, and have fun with it!!!
What Structure Looks Like
These basic plot and structure elements will never fail you.
A plot is about a Lead character who has an objective—something necessary, absolutely crucial to his well being. The major portion of plot is the confrontation with the opposition, a series of battles over the objective. Finally the story is resolved in a knockout ending, an outcome that satisfies the story’s questions, and the readers.
A solid plot unfolds in three acts—a beginning, a middle, and an end.
In the beginning we get to know the Lead, his world, and the tone of the story to come. We writers need to insert some sort of disturbance in the first-act of our plot line. This tactic is to keep away the dull parts.
We move into the middle through a doorway of no return, and find/create his conflict with the opposition. We need some sort of adhesive to keep them together—something like professional and moral duty, or a physical location. Death—physical, professional, or psychological--often a real possibility until the conflict is settled.
Some setback or crisis, or discovery or clue, pushes the lead through the second doorway of no return.
Now all the elements are out there in the open for all to take a try at using what we’ve covered in our Focus on Fiction workshop so far. The exercises are offered as a way for you to try out the skill you’ve just been introduced to.
By this time, you may have noticed a hint that we will cover most of the things you need to know in order to write good commercial or literary fiction. I believe that Bell’s Plot & Structure is set up so that the writer who has a work in progress can read along and continue, week after week, producing and perfecting the draft of a potentially publisher friendly manuscript.
So if you didn’t plan on writing a narrative, it’s now a challenge. I appreciate responses to the exercises, and I hope you are able to spend additional time during the week to be figuring out your plot, and characters, and conflict. Commit yourself to write a narrative manuscript that is short story or novella length. You can use the same strategies that are presented in Bell’s chapters.
I realize the time for this workshop could become an overload. Don’t try to finish a chapter and all its exercises in one reading. Maybe you’ll get a better comprehension after you’ve slept on it. You’ll get more out of the workshop the more you write, You don’t have to show anything to me that you wish to keep personal, but do these exercises and compose basic plot structure as discussed. Your confidence will grow in leaps and bounds, and you’ll have the right to be very proud of yourself for writing, and finishing a novel! Around that time, you need to study up on the query letter.
As facilitator, I apologize for the late posting of this article. I had about 11 pages that are in tech-no-no-limbo. I ended up using James Bell’s chapter 3 to generate the information for this article. I’ve processed this info a few times, so it’s not all a direct quote lift. These great ideas have come from Mr. Bell—I’m just the messenger. But being the messenger has inspired me to write. I’ve been mentally juggling a plot and a couple of characters for almost two years. The six chapters I have I may decide not to use because I too want to try Bell’s ideas. I hope you are likewise inspired and that you find the article and exercises useful.
Keep on writing . . . .
Your facilitator, Patrice
Final thought: if you’d like me to look over your manuscript written to date,
let me know with an e-mail to Patrice@writing.com