Jeanne: Back to Basics: Acts and Turning Points

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Since throwing away a (really awful) 60,000 word draft of for my current work-in-progress back in mid-April, I’ve been struggling with the updated story line. I’ve got a lot of ideas about what could happen, but I need a framework to ensure that those incidents escalate, and that the external story mirrors the internal character arc so we understand why the character is changing.

This quest led me back to an assignment we completed at McDaniel that was designed for exactly that purpose. Jenny gave us a template that looked at the function of each of the five turning points in a four-act story.

  1. Inciting Incident
    • Introduce main character(s)
    • Get the action rolling
  2. Change of Plans
    • Surprise to protagonist and reader
    • Things are worse than he thought
    • Forces him to change his plans
    • Pushes past an internal limit he’d set for himself
    • Forces him into an action so strong it turns the story around into a new story
  3. Point of No Return
    • Surprises the reader and the protagonist
    • Forces him to change his plans
    • Pushes past an internal limit he set for himself
    • He can no longer return to his stable life, even if he wants to
  4. The Dark Moment
    • The going-to-hell moment in the story when all seems lost and the protagonist is in crisis.
    • Moment when protagonist hits bottom, forcing him to rise again.
    • Reader is on her feet, cheering him on for that last push.
    • Revelation through action so strong it turns the story around and makes it a new story
  5. Climax, aka Obligatory Scene
    • Protagonist and antagonist meet in a final battle for all the marbles
    • Catharsis for reader, release from all the tension
    • Answers all the question, end of the journey
    • Revelation through action so strong it satisfies the reader completely and makes her want to read the story all over again.

My writing method is somewhere between plotting and pantsing. I need to have these five turning points defined or I wander around aimlessly. But once I have them, I’m comfortable winging it.

How much structure do you need before you start writing? Or, as a reader, how important is a well thought-out plot to you?

6 thoughts on “Jeanne: Back to Basics: Acts and Turning Points

  1. I’m one of those writers who writes what they like to read. I like dialogue, so if that’s good in a book I’m reading, I’m fine with a plot that doesn’t make much sense, doesn’t tie up all the lose ends, doesn’t have those well-thought-out highs and lows. Before I start working on a new project, I know how the book starts and how it ends, but the middle is an enigma, and I never do get around to plotting anything, although I keep a document called “outline” with a summary of what I included in a chapter and, perhaps, thoughts on where future chapters could go. But those are only thoughts, not plans.

    I’m so sorry about the 60,000 words. I once cut 40,000, and it was killer.

  2. I. Need. Structure.

    After attending a Cruising Writer’s retreat and hearing Alexandra Sokoloff talk about the structure of movies and how it relates to storytelling, I’ve become a firm convert using her methodology of plotting out a book. She basically takes the 3-Act structure, cuts Act 2 into two parts (split by the midpoint), and then takes what’s left and divides that into two sequences with a small climax at the end of each sequence, giving you eight sequences (or segments or parts…whatever you want to call it, but “sequence” is very much an entrenched film term):
    –Act 1, seq 1 and seq 2 (climax Act 1)
    –Act 2, part 1, seq 1 and seq 2 (climax is midpoint)
    –Act 2, part 2, seq 1 and seq 2 (climax Act 2)
    –Act 3, seq 1 (climax is black moment) and seq 2 (full climax/ending)

    This formula has been used by the film industry since the beginning, and not coincidentally, Each sequence runs about 15 minutes in a movie, because in the days of multiple-reel movies, each reel held about 15 minutes worth of film, so to get folks to come back to the theater for the next 15 minutes, they’d end each sequence on a cliffhanger (hence the small climaxes at the end of each sequence). If you watch a movie today, you’ll see this similar structure still being used, albeit with shorter sequences at the end to hit the 1:30 typical run-time of a movie (and she uses LOTS of examples in her book). For novels, she encourages a bit more leeway (1 sequence = ~50 pages, sometimes more, sometimes less, particularly at the end), but the basic idea is the same.

    What’s even more awesome is that for each of these acts/sequences, she identifies what typically happens, like for example in Act 1: Opening image/”setpiece”, meet the hero/ine, Hero/ine’s [ordinary world, inner/outer desire, problem, ghost, special skills, arc, call to adventure, offer s/he can’t refuse], meet antagonist, theme, introduce allies, introduce mentor, introduce love interest, plants/reveals (aka setups/payoffs), hope/fear/stakes, ticking clock, MacGuffin, central story question, Hero/ine’s plan, Act 1 climax. She’s quick to point which of these things might happen later, but when I think about my own story, many of them happen right on cue.

    I’ve plotted out my entire book in sticky notes on my whiteboard with four columns (Act 1, Act 2:1, Act 2:2, Act 3) and three rows (plot, character arc, love arc), using different colored stickies for each character. It’s been exceedingly helpful to break the story down like that, and when I have something in the story I know needs to happen, it’s a lot easier for me to figure out where it should go. Perhaps more importantly, it really helps me figure out what I’m MISSING.

    Not to give Alex all the credit for this four part structure, because she didn’t invent it, I also took a class taught through Lawson’s Writer’s Academy called Story Structure Safari, which was basically ^^^^, except harder for me to understand. I’m not sure why, but Alex’s methodology (almost exactly the same!) was easier for me to grasp. Maybe it’s because she used so many familiar movie examples? Or maybe because her background is screenwriting. I’m not sure.

    Anyhow, if you want more details, let me know and I’m happy to provide. Some of the things you’ve listed above I think are missing some concepts that might make it easier to grasp what’s supposed to happen. For example, in Part 2, Change of Plans, in both courses I took, they referred to this as “the new world.” Think of it as Dorothy getting to Oz. Not only is the movie now in color where it was black and white before, but she definitely isn’t in Kansas anymore. It’s a new world for her and she has to learn how to navigate it.

    I also learned what was wrecking the end of my first book — I didn’t have the hero vs. antagonist as mano y mano. It was more of a group effort/someone else taking care of the antag, and it was so incredibly unsatisfying. Once I figured out that was my problem (because Alex was kind enough to point it out VERY CLEARLY), the ending wrote itself.

    I’ve garbled on. But I think you get the idea that I really like this methodology and it works for me. It certainly makes SENSE to me, and that’s half the battle right there.

  3. I write mostly short stories, and don’t follow any plot structure in particular; it’s always very intuitive, except for the inciting incident. Because if I don’t have an inciting incident, my characters seem to be happy chatting about the world until it gets boring at 2000/3000 words, and then I wander off.

    When I go back after the first/second draft, I do tend to find the story has the turning points it needs.

    I suspect that first draft is like reporting on an incident — I get the eye witness accounts down, and interview suspects, er, characters, and find out what the story IS. I may have a structure in mind as to how it would go, but sometimes I find out surprising new information that completely waylays my plan for how to write the story. So, when I have finished with the information gathering, I can write down the plot points. When I was newswriting, this was largely a matter of slightly rearranging paragraphs and filling things in.

    In fiction writing, though, I find I completely throw out words, and just rewrite the scene from memory. I HATE doing that; it feels so wasteful, but I guess that’s how many people do it. Sometimes I lose good stuff doing it that way; sometimes I get better stuff.

    I remember the exercise; *I* thought I was escalating the plot points, but Jenny said it was more like a string of pearls structure — all of similar significance.

  4. It’s interesting that, with your news reporting background, you find yourself mimicking that structure. As a former programmer/analyst, I see my approach as being like designing a computer system–what’s called a top-down design. I figure out the big, overarching stuff first, then drill down to the details.

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