I’m very nearly done with the first draft of the book. Very nearly. I just have a couple of scenes to write near the end, plus some backfill to do at the start. This means it’s time to do what I always do at this stage of a story, and make a scene list. Which might leave you thinking, What? Make a scene list after you’ve written the book? That’s backwards! What?? I can explain.
I plan backwards. In total contrast to those who write out a scene list at the start of their project, I get down all known parts of my story first, and then shuffle them into shape, ready to go through and add backbone where is needed.
Essentially, the whole first draft of any of my stories is the rough outline, the brainstorm, the freewrite. It’s dialogue, action, description, ideas. The difference is that by the end of my outline, rather than a bulleted list of one line scene descriptions, I have 80,000 words.
I’m not totally ad-libbing it as I go. The shape of the story is in my head when I start, key scenes, all my Would Like To Meets. Writing like this lets my brain off the hook, frees it to make connections and throw in clues I have not yet consciously considered.
At the end, or near it, is when I get the scene list together in order to let me do just that – work deliberately on the structure my brain has been creating as it goes along.
What is a scene list? For me, it’s exactly what it says on the tin – a long list of every scene in my book, just a line saying what happened/what the purpose of the scene was. Maybe it’s the scene where aliens arrive; maybe it’s the scene where the hero reflects on his mistakes whilst fleeing a murderous tree.
Sometimes, when I try to describe the scene and it comes out as the bit where my hero dances with his love interest and they discover childhood similarities and get a bit drunk together, I realise that in fact the scene is doing nothing at all except indulging my romantic impulses, and so I ditch it then and there. This makes my scene list shorter.
Losing wordcount is a hazard of writing this way, but generally I’ve got so much by this point that the odd thousand words here and there don’t have a huge impact. And because my writing style tends toward the sparse, I know I’ll be going back in second draft and making it more descriptive and less like a load of dialogue in a bald occasional setting, and that will bring the words back in.
When I write out the scenes, I’m checking a number of things, separately and in this order:
1. Gaps. Has Bob gone from A to B without warning, and does the reader understand the transition? Is another scene needed to clarify or emphasise a key point? Have I referenced Bob’s dog in chapter 20, but failed to mention the mutt in chapter one?
2. Timeline. Do I have the aliens vanishing before the incident which sets free their nemesis? (Yes. This is a problem.) What are the logical consequences of each scene, and does what I’ve got next, make logical (and psychological) sense?
3. A decent shape. Does the story pan out in a way which will keep the reader interested? Are there slack bits which they will skip and if so, can I skip them too? Do the big scenes happen at the right moments, or have I created a three-hour movie where the story is all wrapped up, and then Bond goes off on a seemingly fresh mission for another ninety minutes? I hate movies that do this. If the story you started with is resolved, then stop. Doctor Who has become guilty of this lately, and the Mission Impossible franchise. Boo.
4. Clues. Is everything needed to resolve the story, shown to the reader early on? Agatha Christie-style last minute convenience is not allowed. You cannot have the hero suddenly find a Planet Salve in his pocket just as the world needs a solution for massive nettle rash. For a perfect story, in this respect, see Star Trek Beyond. All you need to know is set up in the opening scenes. Nothing is wasted and nobody pulls any rabbits from space hats.
5. Tone or mood. Glancing through, I check that the mood shape works with the story shape. This is hard to formulate, but basically, I check that I don’t have a happy-go-lucky scene right after a tragic one, unless that makes emotional sense in the story. Do I need to move my comic moments around, or add more? Do I need to hint at darkness sooner in the story?
When I’ve done all this using my scene list, all plot holes should be filled in, and the shape of the story should be pretty reasonable. I’m then free to write the remaining scenes in the light of the scene list.
And once that’s complete… I’m ready to start on the second draft.
Lots of story methods use scene lists, but they are generally written before you begin. I have tried this, and found that I lasted less than two weeks of writing. By trying to nail down my story shape too early, I stretched my suspension of disbelief and got tangled in theoretical plots and subplots before I even had a clear voice for my heroine. That might mean I was doing plotting wrong, or it might be the way my mind works, but anyway the result was rubbish.
Anyway, for the traditional approach to scene lists, try the first two of these links below. They make perfect sense, even if they don’t work for me personally. And although I’ve yet to read it, the third is on my list to read next and seems to be right up my street.
Libbie Hawker’s book started out annoying – I dislike the cosy, sparkly tone she adopts – but soon it gets down to solid advice, and her own suggested formula for a satisfying story structure. She uses one of her own books as an example, but also some well known stories. I liked the shape of her outline, but had trouble with her definitions of the Antagonist and Ally, since they seemed to be the opposite of standard explanations of these.
I could see what she was getting at, but I couldn’t pin these definitions on any of my characters. Did that mean I was trying to write a novel without either of these? I didn’t think so, but I couldn’t make it stick.
I liked her iteration of the ‘Drive for Goal>Antagonist Attacks!>Thwart>Revisiting Main Character’s Flaw>New Drive For Goal’ flow. I can totally see how that could lead the reader through a series of increasingly Bad Things until the main character is forced to address their Flaw, challenge the Antagonist, and be changed by the outcome. I tend to do this anyway, but I don’t think I use the Antagonist/Ally double-whammy she describes. So this book was interesting but I’ve yet to get a handle on applying its ideas.
Super Structure, by James Scott Bell. James Scott Bell proposes a different structure, based around the main character experiencing a disturbance in their status quo, and then being propelled through two ‘doorways of no return.’ I like this simpler idea, but then got stuck again trying to identify my doorways. Is it when my character runs away recklessly seeking glory? Is it when his home is destroyed by the bad guys? Is it much, much sooner, when he first arrives at the strange village? Aarrgghh. (But see my later post on this – Sef)
Twenty Master Plots and How to Build Them. Ronald B Tobias’ book is a little different. It suggests you identify your story as one of his 20 basic types of plot, and then use the corresponding deep structure. My plot is easily identified as a quest (hurrah – I can ignore the following 19 chapters) but then again I got tied up in trying to match anything in my book to any of the stages Tobias insists are fundamental.
Lessons learned about structure: think about structure when you first brainstorm your ideas. That way, instead of shoehorning your existing plot into a structure-shape and assessing if it works, you can be starting from an empty system which you can fill with your inspiration. I never thought I’d say this, but maybe I need some slightly smaller pants after all.
Where I come from, pa￼nts means knickers. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about outlining my novel.
In Lancashire, (and also in, you know, America) pants means trousers. Flying by the seat of them is a style of writing beloved of those who like to be spontaneous, creative, freeform. They are known as pantsers and are often set up in opposition to plotters, who prefer a more orderly approach. I don’t believe these styles are mutually exclusive, but it’s a handy label. I am a pantser, and I am also someone who wants to write a novel. That’s what this blog is about. I put on the pants in January 2016 and they are huge.
It’s now June. And for the first time in my life, the pants are not comfy.
I started with a story outline of my usual kind: a wobbly line drawn in a notebook, with a couple of high and low points labelled, like a cross section of the Lancashire Dales. Peaks were my main characters’ triumphs; valleys, their terrible defeats at the hands of the enemy.
Later I added a few pages of mind map, connecting the various scenes I had in my head (and also, now, in Scrivener*) and trying to invent the ones I would need to make it all work logically.
Two weeks ago with a large Don’t Know now blockading Part 1 and Part 3 of my story, I went out and found these books:
Some detail on each of these books is in Part 2, but the bottom line is this: they didn’t help me outline a novel. Or rather, they didn’t help me with this novel. I will certainly be trying their methods for future stories, particularly some of the genre fiction I have lined up in my mental Must Write list.
My stories have never had any of these suggested structures. Reading these books left me panicking. Am I no good at all? Am I only made to enjoy the work of other writers, who can create a Mirror Moment (JSB) or show their character Girding Their Loins (LH)?
Every part of me answers No to these questions. I can write, I do write and I will write. I will work this out. I will stare at my wobbly cross section of the Dales until I figure out what is on that big peak in the middle, and how my lead will tumble down it, cursing, into the valley below.
So that’s where I’m up to. I’m sitting in enormous pants, with a complete idea for a book except some detail about the middle, unable to make my ideas fit other people’s. I’m not so arrogant as to think I have nothing to learn from established authors and screenwriters. Perhaps I am only hopeless at identifying a story’s structure (this does ring a faint bell from my English degree).
The only conclusion I’ve reached so far is that when I do figure out how story structure works for me, I’m going to write it down and put it in a book.
*I have a separate post on Scrivener, the writing software used by many authors and bloggers. I’m roadtesting it for my first proper novel, plus also trying out WordPress and having a personal blog for the first time. Because obviously writing a novel won’t occupy my entire life.
**Longest original story. I have fanfics which go on and on. They needed some outlining too, but I did it as I went along and it worked out fine. Probably because all the hard worldbuilding, characterisation, premise and motivation had been done for me.
*** The Hollow Boy was awesome. I devoured it in three sittings, ignoring my childcare and dinner preparation duties, and reading it on the train when a keen professional might have been doing a bit of unpaid overtime. I’m in love with Lockwood, and desperate to know the cause of the ghost Problem, and how the narrator, Lucy, will manage after the cataclysmic events at the end of this book. It’s part 3 of the Lockwood series and I already have part 4 on pre-order. Stroud is an amazing writer! I bet he understands story structure.