Friday, March 29, 2013

So, Write 101: Building the Bones of Your Story.

You’ve decided to write a book.  You’ve researched your genre and stated your idea in one sentence.  Now what?

There are dozens of methods out there for approaching your novel, from diving into your first chapter to writing a full plot synopsis, but the method I use is somewhere in-between. When you have a seed of an idea, writing a full synopsis or first chapter is like sprouting a branch before you have the trunk of your tree. What I do is create a plan for my synopsis based on solid, tested story structure.

With this method, I'm going to challenge you to think in terms of scenes in your novel. What's a scene? If you watch any popular TV shows, you probably already know, but here's how I think of it: a scene is a unit of a fictional work that takes place in a single setting and includes some action or dialogue that moves the story forward.

Most popular fiction follows the three act plot structure. If you are brand new, here’s a great explanation of what that is Don’t be concerned that this site is geared toward screenwriters.  The fundamentals of story telling are the same. Here's another great take on the basics of story structure you should definitely read

But how do you translate this structure into a quick guide for writing your first book?

I find it helpful to have a word count target before I begin writing my plan.  A full length novel is usually 50,000-100,000 words. Young adult novels tend to be 50,000-80,000, Epic fantasy over 100,000. 

For our purposes, I am going to plan a Young Adult book, so my first draft is going to be right around 60,000 words with the final version of the book closer to 70,000.  (These numbers have a lot to do with my writing style. I tend to write lean and then edit detail into the manuscript. Other writers I know tend to be wordy in their first draft and cut words when editing. You will develop your own style and word goals with experience. )

So, using our 60,000 word target, that means the beginning of your novel should be around 15,000 words, the middle 30,000, and the end 15,000.  

Here’s my method. To create the bones of your story, dole out 30 index cards.  Each index card counts for 2,000 words.

Divide them into three piles:

1. Beginning: 7 cards, each with one to three sentences describing scenes that do the following:
  • Establish character, setting, premise and conflict. 
  • Describe the Inciting Event (IE)- something happens to throw our main character completely off balance, thrusting him forward in the story. (I like to think of this as an event that happens to our main character (MC) that they don't see coming and causes change. For example, in Harry Potter, the IE is when Hagrid tells Harry he's a Wizard. In The Soulkeepers, Jacob breaks Dr. Silva's window.)
  • Delve into the MC's reaction to the IE and his or her attempts to return to some state of normalcy.
  • Plot Turn #1- An event that sets a new course for our MC, usually one they choose for themselves (Harry sorted to Gryffindor rather than Slytherin based on his choice. Jacob agrees to train with Dr. Silva in exchange for her help). 

2. Middle: 15 cards

  • The MC moves toward their new goal, encountering many obstacles along the way but doing pretty well to overcome them.
  • Point of No Return- A major obstacle presents itself that seems insurmountable. The MC must continue toward their goal or lose everything. (The Medicine Woman tells Jacob to forget about finding his mother)
  • The Dark Moment- The MC losses all hope and considers giving up. (Dr. Silva refuses to help Jacob anymore)
  • Plot Turn #2- An event happens that revives the MC. (Malini and Dr. Silva unite to rescue Jacob)

3. End: 8 cards

  • The MC faces his nemesis. (Jacob vs. the Watchers)
  • The story reaches its highest point of tension. (Jacob dies and connects to his power)
  • An event results in the climax of the story. (The Soulkeepers overcome and escape)
  • Our MC returns to a state of relative calm or normalcy, although changed. (Christmas)

Keep it simple. At this point, all you need is a picture in your head that represents a scene and to describe that scene in as many words as it takes to prompt your imagination. I use index cards because they make it easy to reorder scenes as I go along. A scene is not necessarily a chapter or vice versa, but I've found a 2,000 word average per scene is a good place to start when planning the story structure, thus the 30 cards.

Don't worry, about having names for all of your characters, full descriptions of settings, or even knowing exactly what will happen in detail.  It's okay to be vague or write yourself notes to research something in the future. All you are trying to do is to get the most basic structure of your story on paper.

It’s very important that I clarify that your book will not necessarily follow this progression closely once you let the words fly. My books never hold exactly to my plan, nor should they.  But, using this method, in under an hour I can create the basic bones of a story, bones that I can then use to build on as I move forward.

Next time-- Developing your story: Characters.

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