Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Two and Three make Seven: Outlining Book 2

It's common practice to divide writers into two categories, outliners and discovery writers (sometimes called 'pantsers', as in 'by the seat of your pants'). Obviously, this is a pretty lazy dichotomy until you define your terms clearly; after all, even the most vigorous pantsers must (I assume) think about where the story is going next while they're showering, cooking, hoovering etc, just as even the most detailed outliners must be prepared to accept things happening in their drafts that they didn't expect in the outline.

So let's be a little clearer; let's say that it comes down to whether you need to know how your story ends before you write it, or you need to *not* know how your story ends until you write it. Most debates about outlining vs. pantsing seem to come down to this issue - some writers can't imagine writing if they know how the story is going to end, whereas some don't feel able to write unless they know where the story is going. I'm going to permit myself a little poetic license and call the latter 'journey writers' and the former 'destination writers'.

A journey writer's main interest is going to be - generally - how the characters get there from here, whereas a destination writer is more interested in where they're going. I don't intend to stigmatise destination writers at all, but I am - as you may have guessed - a journey writer myself. I find it very difficult to get through the middle of a book unless I know where I'm headed; I tend to lose interest, or flail around as directionlessly as my characters. The rest of this blog is going to be of very little interest to destination writers, I'm afraid.

Anyway, I'm currently in the process of outlining 'Some Kind of Angel', the sequel to 'Heaven Can Wait' (which will be on sale by the end of this month come hell or high water), and I ran across a talk on YouTube by Dan Wells which has been so useful to me that I thought I'd share it, and some thoughts on it that I had by myself.

First off, WATCH THE AWESOME VIDEO, SERIOUSLY. It's quite long, but if you have to choose between reading the rest of this blog and watching the video, watch the video. I'm humble enough to accept that Dan Wells is more insightful on this topic than I am. ;D

Wells describes a 7-point story structure which BLEW MY MIND. You've heard of the three-act formula? This works the same way, except with seven points, because more is always better, right?

Actually, with outlining, I think more usually is better, because it means more detail, and thus less time spent worrying about plot developments when you're trying to write rounded characters. But there's more to it than that.

The three act structure runs like this (as I understand it): act 1 - characters encounter a problem, act 2 - problem gets worse, act 3 - characters solve problem. In the video, Wells repeats a Brandon Mull quip I love; "Act 1, drive your characters up a tree. Act 2, throw rocks at them. Act 3, get them out of the tree."

I used the three-act structure to write 'Heaven Can Wait'; the morning I woke up with the idea, I started looking for what the initial problem is, how to make it worse, and how to solve it. It worked fine, mainly because structurally, 'Heaven Can Wait' isn't very complicated, and that gave me lots of room to make the characters interesting and the world rich.

But there's another aspect to story stucture which isn't implicit in the three-act structure, which is that for the first part of the story, your characters should be reacting to the bad guy, and in the second half the bad guy reacts to the characters. Sometimes called the two-act structure, I prefer to think of this as the Benny Hill formula (Benny chases girl until they go past a dog or policewoman, who then chases Benny).

The advantage of Wells' 7-point structure is that it combines 3-act and Benny Hill. It goes:
1 - starting state
2 - plot turn 1
3 - pinch 1 (add pressure to the situation)
4 - mid-point (characters go on the offensive)
5 - pinch 2
6 - plot turn 2
7 - resolution

Break this up into three, and you get act 1: starting state and plot turn 1, act 2: pinch, midpoint, pinch, act 3: plot turn 2 and resolution, or 'create problem, make it worse, solve problem'.

Break it up into two, and you get part 1: starting state, plot turn 1, pinch, mid-point, part 2: pinch, plot turn 2, resolution. Or to put it another way, part 1: bad guy creates problem for the characters, characters decide to solve it, part 2: characters creat problem for bad guy by solving the initial problem.

I'm possibly not explaining that as clearly as I want to, but I hope it makes some sense. My point is basically that the 7-point system really helped me understand how the different parts of the 'Some Kind of Angel' story could fit together. Most importantly, it stresses in a way that other structures don't the need to raise the stakes and add pressure (i.e. the pinches). I often struggle to make the stakes high enough for my characters, but knowing where the big pressure points should go has really helped me rack it up on my characters.

And I haven't even got to the bit at the end of the talk where Wells explains how to assemble a narrative out of multiple parallel 7-pointers, which is genius but speaks very much for itself.

Happy outlining!

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