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Technical Writer to Fiction Writer – The Plot Thickens

The plot is one of the main drivers of any work of fiction. The structure and architecture allow you to put one of the main best practices to work for you. The structure and architecture of the story are closely related but are not identical.

Structure

The structure is the bone or the skeleton of the work. Without structure, you’ll end up with a limp mess of “stuff”, commonly referred to as “literature”. You better have really good characterization or other skills or you’ll never sell the thing.

The structure is the foundation, frame, joists, roof, etc. Look at any garden shed and you will see a lot of structure.

Architecture

Add style, ambiance and creative communication to the basic structure and you are now in architecture. The structure is to architecture what a lean-to in the woods is to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Waters.

You will need to work with Larry Brooks’ Six Core Competencies to launch the architecture. It’s not just one thing you do, but a synergy of skills.

Ground

These are the actual events of the story that hopefully happen within your structure. The basics of a (fictional) dramatic structure might be: “Make the hero climb a tree.” Throw rocks and other nasty things at him. Take it out of the tree. You have a conflict or problem that the protagonist needs to resolve; it is a game with freedoms, barriers and goals.

Basic Structures

Since the days of the Greek theatre, the 3-act structure has dominated the art of storytelling. In novel writing, it can be a little relaxed, but don’t make it too soft. Scriptwriting (for film) has a very strict structure (always the 3 Acts) and you don’t deviate from it in the least.

Larry Brooks advocates a 4-part structure which corresponds directly to the 3-act structure. Randy Ingermanson and James Scott Bell use the 3-act structure. Let’s take a look at these:

Structures in 3 acts and 4 parts

These are based on the percentage of completion of the work. For novels, this is the number of pages of the story itself, not counting the beginning or end. Note that the page numbering starts at the title page, so you may need to do some quick math to get the actual page count.

Script writing (movies) uses running time in minutes. Leave the credit runtimes at the end. Screenwriting is generally much stricter than novels when it comes to these percentages.

  • To start up. Contains Act 1 or Part 1. It is known as the set up and has a call to action at the end.
  • 25% Plot point 1 and start of Act 2. (Bell calls this and the 75% “gates”. Ingernmanson calls them disasters). This part is the protagonist’s response to the set-up ending in plot point 1. In the 3-act structure, act 2 goes up to the 75% point. However, there is usually a median change at 50%. Act 2 is about conflicts and battles.
  • 50% Context switch. Midpoint of Act 2. The protagonist stops reacting and goes on the attack against the problem or the aggressors.
  • 75% Plot point 2 and beginning of Act 3. At this point, the protagonist and the reader/viewer have almost all the information needed to resolve the antagonism or problem. In a mystery, you have all the clues. This starts the Solving part.
  • 100% End of text or duration of film.

Some definitions :

Gate: A scene that goes one way or the other without stepping back. For the first 25% gate, the protagonist decides to either venture into the unknown or continue doing what they did before. Guess which route he usually takes.

Disaster: Ingermanson’s view of a door. The protagonist struggles to achieve a goal/solve a problem but ends up doing worse than before.

Track point: Brooks’ summary of the Bell Gate.

Pinch point: Brooks’ “invention” of a quick twist or recall: “a pinch point is simply to stick the nature of the primary antagonistic force right in the face of the reader (and perhaps the hero, but not necessarily ). Whatever the cause of the problems, we see again at the pinch point.” It can be a short paragraph or a short sentence or a short scene. Pinch points occur in the middle of Part 2 and in the middle of Part 3.

Mythic Structure: Hero’s Journey

Star Wars popularized this structure. It is named after Joseph Cambell’s book, The hero’s journey. It has different forms, but they all follow a similar pattern in the 3-act structure:

act 1

  • You are introduced to the world of the hero (nescient).
  • A disturbance or “call to adventure” upsets his universe.
  • The hero can ignore this disruption for a while, but
  • He crosses the threshold of a dark world.

Act 2

  • A mentor often appears to teach the hero.
  • Various things happen with the forces of darkness.
  • The hero has a dark moment within himself that he must overcome to continue.
  • A talisman could help in the battle against darkness, like the author king’s Excalibur sword.

Act 3

  • The hero fights the final battle.
  • The hero returns to his own world.

But I am not a plotter!

No problem! We technical writers/analysts/programmers are actually pretty good plotters. We are very good at discovering or developing each of the possible consequences of an action. Even though the original developers didn’t consider all the possibilities at some point, we have the experience to list them. How often did the technical writers report one or more alternative possibilities to the developer? As a programmer/analyst, I bet after stepping on a sensitive body part several times, you added several more ElseIf or Case statements, right?

Your assignment

  1. Read Larry Brooks’ article (StoryFix.com), The Most Powerful Two Hours You’ll Ever Spend as a Storyteller
  2. Go to your local plot store (or your own library) and buy some plots. This is the NYT or other bestseller list titles from several years ago.
  3. Break down the structure (not the plot) as shown by Larry to end up with a generic model for this genre. While Larry says to use a movie/DVD, any fictional medium should do.
  4. Repeat at least once on another acquired plot.

You now have at least two best-selling storylines for your own novels. Go write something!

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