Monday, March 5, 2012

Anchor Scenes for Story Structure

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.


N. R. Williams said...

I hear you. Sometimes we spend an enormous amount of time getting to the point. Once there we know we have to go back and edit all those lose ends.


Susan Roebuck said...

Oh brilliant. Just what I need right now. Like you I'm not so keen on pure pantsing but I'm also not good at plotting out every chapter and scene (not good? completely unable to!!!). I'll have a good study of this...thanks!

Luce said...

Nancy-- Or just make our peace with cutting out all the waffling in the next draft. *Sigh*

Susan-- Glad this seems helpful! Do yourself a favor and follow that link to Jenny Crusie's post, too. It's a summary of her RWA presentation on turning points, as well some other aspects of structure, and it's WONDERFUL.

Lani said...

Thanks for the great write-up, Lucy! And nice to meet you!

The anchor scene you missed (according to my anchor scene layout; structure can work in a lot of different ways, this is my sense of it based on classic story structure, ymmv) was between the midpoint and the dark moment; it's the point of no return, when the character is so changed that s/he can no longer do things the way they used to be done; moving forward with new knowledge, they start to fight back against the antagonist in a new way, which is much more threatening to the antagonist, who hits even harder now. It keeps that momentum moving between the midpoint and the dark moment.

Thanks again for the kind words!

Maria S McDonald said...

I'm a pure pantster - I just start writing whatever pops in my head and sort out the chronological order later. Like you, all my novels start with a lot of back story rather than a punch of "here's something significant happening right now!", so I'm presuming that most of what I've written will be discarded to get to the meat of the story. But eh... it's good practice, and this simplified version of plotting will help me tremendously, I think :)

Josh Hoyt said...

This is a great write up with lots of useful information thanks!

Jean said...

I'm working on finding the right mix of plotting and pantsing. I can only do so much before I start it seems, yet I need to impose some structure here and there so I don't go off on a tangent and never return!

Carol Hughes taught me a "deep story" class where she has 18 scenes that need to be in the story. It covers your 6 and then adds a few more. I'm writing a kids book with that structure right now and it seems to help. However, I do find from time to time that I've gotten off track or leapt ahead.

Basically, when it comes to me, no system is perfect.

Luce said...

Lani!--I've been meaning forever to get over to iTunes and give you guys a review (and I promise I will). So the Midpoint and the Point of No Return aren't the same story point? Hunh. I guess that would mean that the midpoint is the game-changer plot-wise, and No Return is character-based? I will have to think more about this--thanks!

Maria--It's all good if it helps us to get to our stories.

Josh--You're totally welcome, but follow the links in the post to the mother-load of Craft awesomeness. You won't be sorry!

Jean--18 scenes? Holy moly. But I bet that for some folks, having smaller turning points to write towards actually helps them to feel even less overwhelmed.

And IMO, we don't need perfection :) ; we just need something to bounce off of that doesn't interfere with what I've heard Anne Stuart call "the magic," and what I think of as all the Voice and the fun and the wonder of whatever story we're telling.

Thanks for stopping by, Folks!

Jemi Fraser said...

I'm moving from the pantster side of things to the plotter. Mind you, I'm moving at glacial speed... But I did have 3 scenes in mind (1st, last and one near the end) before I started writing my latest story. Progress! I think I could use this structure to help me keep on track! :)

Luce said...

Let me know how it goes, Jemi!

Ruth said...

I'm a reformed pantser....or a born again plotter? Not sure I loved your post. Thank you. It's a good start and place to look when even plotters start to feel a little lost.

Katrina said...

Hey I linked to this post from my blog. Thanks for the sum-up of Lani's 7 Anchor Scenes. I am planning on taking her class for Nano!

Here is the blog:

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