by Lucy Marsden
In my heart of hearts, I am a plotter. The problem is that, in my brain of brains, I have a sadly inconsistent grasp of story structure.
Pure pantsing, in which I attempt to write while having no idea what my characters are moving towards, leaves me floundering and paralyzed; trying to articulate every twist and turn of the story before I start to write, however, makes me break into a sweat as I contemplate the (inevitable) gaping holes in my imagination. I need an approach to story that protects me from the feeling of being in free-fall, while helping me to tolerate (and even embrace) all the stuff I don’t yet know about What Happens Next and Why.
Happily, the folks at Storywonk (AKA author Lani Diane Rich and Alastair Stephens), and author Jenny Crusie, have done a fabulous job of presenting a description of the key scenes that create the foundation of story structure. Lani and Alastair actually did a podcast on this recently, called Improvising Seven Anchor Scenes*, and Jenny has presented her take on this approach in her blog post on Argh Ink, The Basics of Fiction.
Briefly (and with none of their genius), here are the foundational scenes:
1. The Initiating Event / The Inciting Incident / Where The Trouble Begins
This is exactly what it sounds like, the event that brings the protagonist into the central story conflict.
It is amazing how long it can take me to actually nail this down. Sometimes I know very clearly what the event is, it just takes me an exasperating amount of time to actually write my way there. God only knows what I’m doing with myself in the meantime.
2. The First Turning Point / The Trouble Gets Worse
I feel like this is also Crossing The Threshold (if you’re familiar with the mythic structure Vogler talks about in The Writer’s Journey). It’s the point where the protagonist has to commit to dealing with whatever the trouble is, because the stakes have just increased, and Business As Usual isn’t going to cut it.
3. The Midpoint / The Point of No Return / The Reversal of Fortune
This is a big moment for plot AND character. It’s the point at which major discoveries are made that change the game that the characters are playing, and it’s the point at which the characters have changed so much that they can’t go back to the way they were before.
This is the point in my current WIP where the hero discovers that his parents’ accidental deaths were actually murders. I knew that from the very beginning, of course, but it took me a while to understand why I should have my hero arrive at that conclusion at this particular point in the story.
4. The Crisis / The Dark Moment/ All Is Lost
At this point, the protagonists are defeated; they don’t yet possess the knowledge / abilities / head space necessary to defeat the Antagonist, and it seems clear that a Happily Ever After with the love of their life is a complete impossibility.
Unbelievably, this bit is really vague for me right now; I think it’s because I haven’t spent a lot of time with my Antagonist, yet, and so I don’t know exactly how he’s going to be pushing back against my hero’s attempts to uncover the murder of his parents. I have a sense of how my hero’s going to back away from my heroine as a result of the threat posed by the Antagonist, but that’s about it.
5. The Climax / The Final Push
Defeated though the protagonist is at the Crisis, they can’t give up. They are forced to finally integrate the abilities/ self-knowledge / growth they’ve been developing throughout the story, and because they do this, they have what they need to finally defeat the Antagonist.
Thankfully, this point isn’t a total fog for me; I know what the heroine’s relationship with the hero is going to provide for him that will turn out to be pivotal in the final showdown, and I know what the heroine’s arc will be contributing to this scene, so I’m OK with discovering the rest.
6. The Resolution / The Happily Ever After / The New World
The protagonist’s world has changed for the better, and so have they. They’ve grown, and are more authentically themselves than they were at the beginning of the story.
Again, I’ve got at least a general sense of what this will look like, and am happy to fill in the details when I get there, especially since I’ll get hints of this as I continue to move through the book.
(* I can only think of 6 scenes to Lani’s 7; if anyone wants to jump into the Comments section and remind me which bit I’m forgetting, please be my guest! And definitely take a minute to check out Storywonk. Lani and Alastair are two of the smartest, most passionate, most articulate, and most enjoyable writing geeks I have ever encountered, and their podcasts alone are phenomenal.)
What kind of story structure (if any) works best for you? What’s your preferred ratio of Plotting to Discovery?
Lucy Marsden is a romance writer living in New England. When she’s not backstage at a magic show or crashing a physics picnic, she can be found knee-deep in the occult collection of some old library, or arguing hotly about Story.