Eventually, You Have to Bring Order to the Story Stuff

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Last week my lovely wife and I were in New York for ThrillerFest, and as usual found time to enjoy some of the city. We did the Strand bookstore (where I scored an autographed Mickey Spillane from a spinner of used paperbacks), then walked up Park Avenue to my favorite building in all of New York: Grand Central Station, the beaux-arts beauty of midtown.

Why do I love it? Start with the clock tower sculpture, because it captures the robust spirit of classic New York, back a hundred years ago when the city was the unapologetic colossus of commerce. That’s why you have the three Greek gods above the clock. Mercury, god of merchants, dominates the piece, with Hercules (representing strength) and Minerva (representing the arts and professions) on either side. I love coming out of the subway stop, looking up and seeing this magnificence.

Inside Grand Central, the main concourse always seems larger than I remember. You can’t help thinking of Cary Grant at the ticket window in North by Northwest, or any of a number of movies from the 30s and 40s featuring New Yorkers getting on trains. There’s a dining concourse below, with our favorite oyster bar. Cindy and I shared a dozen, along with a nice chardonnay.

And we attended the International Thriller Writers Awards banquet, where I was honored to receive the award for Best E-Book Original (for Romeo’s Way). (And thank you for all the kind comments that have already been posted here at TKZ.) It was a delight for Cindy and I to share a table with the amazing Joanna Penn and her husband, Jonathan (Joanna, writing as J. F. Penn, was a Best E-Book Original finalist for her novel Destroyer of Worlds.)

The coolest thing about ThrillerFest is all the off-the-cuff conversation with fellow writers, usually at the hotel bar following the day’s proceedings. That, in fact, is where I caught up with brother John Gilstrap and one of our longtime TKZ commenters, Basil Sands. We were soon joined by weapons expert Chris Grall, and it wasn’t long before John and Chris were instructing us on the best way to cut people to ribbons with a sharp knife … and exactly what a body does when hit by a blast from a shotgun.

Also got to chat with TKZ emeritus Boyd Morrison and current blogmate Mark Alpert.

Reed Farrel Coleman (photo by Adam Martin)

Another guy I always like to see at these conventions is Reed Farrel Coleman. Reed was an ITW Award finalist for his novel Where It Hurts. At the Awards “after party” I had a chance to ask him about his writing method, as I’d read in interviews that he describes himself as a pure “pantser.”

I started by asking what his novel was about, and Reed gave me the backstory of his lead character, Gus Murphy. How he was a cop with a family, but now is divorced and off the force, working a low-end job, drowning in grief due of the death of his son. “That’s where the book starts,” Reed said.

“So you start with a character and a set-up, and then start writing?” I asked.

Reed nodded, then added that he goes “over and over” the first fifty pages until he feels they are just right. Then he moves on.

“How many drafts to you do?”

“One,” he said, with a definite twinkle in his eye. Then he quickly added that he revises and revises as he goes along, so in effect he’s doing multiple “drafts” by the time it’s all wrapped up.

I wrote Reed a follow-up email. “My thought is that as you are making your way through after those first fifty pages, your brain is starting to come up with future scenes. IOW, the ‘outline’ is taking shape organically, in your imagination, and you start to write toward those scenes.”

Reed answered, “Yes, unconsciously, at least, knowing those early pages cold lets my mind work on an outline for the rest of the book. I don’t think of it that way, but it’s a fair assessment of what’s going on.”

And Reed, of course, understands beginning, middle, and end. He knows what has to happen for a character to pass through the “Doorway of No Return” and into the confrontation of Act 2. When I teach, I tell students the main character better be through that doorway, at the latest, by the 20% mark, or the book will start to drag.

Guess what happens at the 20% mark of Where It Hurts? Yep:

When I heard the sirens, I went back around to the front of the house and waited. But I was through waiting to make up my mind. I was in now, with both feet.

And just to amuse myself, I went looking to see if Reed, by way of his storytelling DNA, had included a mirror moment. You bet he did, and right in the middle where it belongs:

Was this, I wondered, what it was like coming out of a coma? Is that what Krissy, Annie, and I were doing? Were we coming around at last? Had enough time elapsed? Had we all finished acting out? Had we finally proved to ourselves and one another that no amount of pain or grief or self-flagellation or magical thinking or deals with God or guilt or fury would restore to us what we had lost? Was it okay to live again?

My goal as a writing instructor is to “pop the hood” on what writers have technically accomplished (even if they don’t realize how they did it), take it apart, and explain how any writer can assemble similar parts for a similar effect.

Reed’s method is one way to go about things. (See? I come in peace, my pantsing brothers and sisters!) By churning over those first fifty pages, Reed is firming up the foundation for his entire novel. By rewriting his previous day’s work, he’s letting his mind suggest scene possibilities that build upon that foundation. “Plotters” do the same thing, only the churning comes before the writing as they prepare a map, strategy and tactics.

The important thing is that the writer, sooner or later, brings order to the story stuff. That’s what structure is all about. It’s getting things lined up so the readers can best relate to the tale you want to tell them. Even more, the story you want to move them. Without order, no matter how “hot” or “creative” you feel about what you write, most readers are going to be frustrated or, worse, annoyed.

My advice: try to avoid that.

I love New York, but it’s always great to get back to L.A., where I am currently in the process of bringing order to my next Mike Romeo thriller.

What about you? Where are you in the “ordering” process? 

10+

Ten Penalties All Writers Must Avoid

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 10.56.26 AM

Forgive my second sports-related post in a row, but come on! It’s Super Bowl Sunday! Across America––and indeed the world––fans will gather around big screens in homes and bars to watch the most exciting spectacle of the viewing year: funny commercials!

Oh yes, and a football game.

This one has drama. On the one side we have the Denver Broncos and their quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning is without question one of the greatest QBs of all time, a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer. But injuries and Father Time have taken their toll. Thus, this will likely be Manning’s final game and his last chance to win one more Super Bowl ring.

On the other side is the new kid, the immensely talented Cam Newton. This guy is huge––6’5”, 260, with a cannon of an arm and legs that can go. He led his Carolina Panthers to an amazing 17-1 season. And now he makes his Super Bowl debut.

I will be with friends noshing sausages, pulled pork, chili, and items from the other essential food groups–the salted nut group, the nacho group, and of course the chocolate-covered anything group.

I hope the game is a good one. I’d love to see it go down to the final minutes. I’ll also be very happy if a kicker does not miss a last-second field goal and thus suffer from nightmares the rest of his life.

And let us hope the game is not marred by a lot of penalties! Hate to see those yellow flags all over the field.

It occurred to me there are some penalty flags that are thrown on writers. So in the interest of helping you write your best, here are some violations you must avoid lest you lose yardage (which, for writers, is measured in pages) and, much more important, readers.

  1. False start

Are you warming up your engines at the beginning of your novel? Do you spend too much time with exposition and backstory? Do you go several pages without a disturbance? Are you giving us “Happy People in Happy Land”? That’s a false start. Penalty: five pages.

  1. Illegal use of the adverbs

Are you using too many adverbs to prop up weak verbs? Worse, are you using adverbs to prop up dialogue? Are you writing things like:

“Get out of here, you louse!” Sheila yelled angrily.

Or

“I’m gonna cut your heart out and feed it to the family dog,” he said threateningly.

If you do, you’ll be penalized, and it’s a big one: fifteen pages.

  1. Passage interference

Also known as the illegal flashback. This is where you stop a narrative in its tracks to give us a long look backward at some scene from the past. Unless there is a dang good reason for this, you will get a yellow flag and docked ten pages.

  1. Encroachment

Also known as author intrusion, this is when you try to sneak in some exposition that does not sound natural to the voice of the character (this penalty is explained more fully in the book VOICE: The Secret Power of Great Writing).

The skilled referee usually finds this in dialogue. The author wants to slip information to the reader through the characters’ words, but they are words the character would never use. Such as:

“Listen, Martha, you’re my lovely wife of twenty-eight years, and I wouldn’t be the head of surgery at Johns Hopkins without you. Especially after suffering that head injury in college when I foolishly went out for the rugby team. But dammit, you can’t dwell on your past as a stripper in a Nevada roadhouse when you were known as Cling Peaches. Please try to relax, like your sister Mary, who is two years younger than you, so we can go enjoy dinner in our hometown of Denver, Colorado.”

Encroachment is an automatic five pages, and loss of down.

  1. Delay of plot

Have you pushed your protagonist through the Doorway of No Return by the 20% mark of your novel? No? Then here’s a hard truth: it’s starting to drag. It doesn’t matter how quirky your characters. They have overstayed their welcome if they are not, by this time, into the struggle of Act II. Penalty: ten pages.

  1. Ineligible character downfield

Do you introduce a major character after the midpoint? Near the end, do you have a minor character show up out of nowhere to solve a plot problem? If you do, you need to go back to the first half and plant these characters. Five pages.

  1. Roughing the villain

League rules are protecting the antagonist more than ever. What do I mean by that? Simply this: if you have an antagonist who is evil, you must give him his due. You can’t just make him pure evil or insane. Boring! Every villain feels justified, and you the author must “make his case” in the book. Far from excusing his evil, this deepens the emotional currents in the reader and, ironically, makes the evil all the more scary. Fifteen page penalty for this one, plus the league may order you go to some rehab, like right here.

  1. Intentional sounding

Have you fallen in love with your sentences? There’s a reason the axiom “kill your darlings” exists. I should explain that this doesn’t mean cut every sentence you like. You’re allowed to delight in your own good writing. But you have to make sure it works for your story, and is true to character and context. Ten pages if, in the judgment of the officials, your pretty prose is more showing off than storytelling.

  1. Illegal motion

Does your story feel unfocused during that long struggle through Act II? Are there scenes that meander? Have you lost narrative vitality? While this penalty is only five pages, enough of these violations will keep you backed up on your own goal line. One place to look for help is the “mirror moment.” This tells you what your novel is really all about so you can write scenes with organic unity and powerful forward drive.

  1. Unauthorlike conduct

Do you head out to social media without a plan and a brand? Do you fly off the handle when you tweet? Do you slip into unethical sockpuppetry in order to slam your perceived competition? This penalty is severe: you might get thrown out of the game. Worse, the league office may suspend you indefinitely.

A good football team knows how to move the ball. A great football team knows how to correct weaknesses. A championship football team does all that, and avoids the penalties that kill scoring drives.

May you write like a champion.

And enjoy the game! I know I will, even though I am completely impartial.

***(COUGH)GoPeyton(COUGH)***

Has your writing been penalty free lately?

10+

Story and Structure in Love

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Back in November, TKZ commenter Dale Ivan Smith talked about a major challenge he faced.
Here’s the key paragraph:
 
The big challenge … is not taking forever on the pre-writing and outlining. How do you impose deadlines on yourself for outlining and still create a solid, damn good novel outline? My fear of drafting a bad story has to a big extent been replaced with the fear of outlining a bad one 😉
 
I answered him, in part, this way:
 
Dale, you’ve asked a great question. I think it really comes down to fear. 
 
There’s an easier and better way to find story, IMO: it’s to play BEFORE you write. Play on the monkey bars built of structural signposts. You actually can be more creative this way because you’re not drafting. Thus, it’s much faster, too. 
 
You can also play in the actual writing. But you’ll be playing a game that readers can make sense of. 
 
It’s the best of both worlds. Freedom AND focus, and a lot less frustration. The people who’ve been writing to me about Write Your Novel From the Middle have been having epiphanies on this. Which is cool. I’ll have more to say on writing this way in the months ahead. 
 
This “best of both worlds” combines the playfulness and creativity of the pantser with the beautiful form of the plotter, all with that most important person in mind—the reader! 
 
If you want to sell books and not just feel good about your writing, you need more than pure freedom and more than mere outlining. 
 
You need a guide, a map, a blueprint, but one that is flexible and freeing, not cold and ruthless. 
 
Which is why I’ve written a new book called Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story.
Story LOVES structure, because structure translates story into a form that enables reader connection…and those are the stories that sell.
 
And don’t let’s confuse structure with outlining, which causes pantsers to break out in the cold sweats. This is a common error. Any writer of any temperament can utilize structure principles, even if your approach is the seat-of-the-pants variety. To be aware of structure is not the same thing as writing a 40 page, single-spaced outline. Which is a perfectly legit thing to do. Just ask James Patterson. Or many fine writers of the past. 
 
But outlining is not a requirement. Which is one reason I wrote this book. It’s for any type of writer because it stresses the idea of “signpost scenes.” There are fourteen signposts scenes, or beats, in Super Structure. It’s culled from the best and most popular novels and screenplays of the past, as well as my own research and development of writing principles over the last 25 years. 
 
The material in this book greatly expands upon the chapter on structure in Write Your Novel From the Middle. Super Structure can be considered a companion to that book, but it also stands alone in its treatment of the elements of a solid and pleasing plot. 
 
Recently, the longtime literary editor for Playboy, Alice K. Turner, went to her final review at age 75. Her obituary in the New York Times talked about how she championed literary fiction for 20 years there, bringing a measure of respectability, ahem, between the folds. And she truly did, publishing some of the best writers of our time and discovering new talent.
 
I love what she said about her preference for a solid, well-structured plot: “If you’re good enough, like Picasso, you can put noses and breasts wherever you like. But first you have to know where they belong.” 
 
Super Structure will tell you where story elements belong. Then you are free to do what you like, experiment all you want.
 
But when your story isn’t working, and you don’t know why, Super Structure will be there to help you find out! It is very friendly that way. Say hello to it today. It’s on sale for only $2.99:
 
 
 
 
 
0

Ten Lessons from Plot & Structure

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

May I pop some champagne?
This past week marked the 10th anniversary of Plot & Structure (Writer’s Digest Books). I’m extremely gratified that the book has helped so many writers, because I needed such help when I was starting out. As I explain in the introduction:
I wasted ten years of prime writing life because of The Big Lie.
           
In my twenties I gave up the dream of becoming a writer because I had been told that writing could not be taught. Writers are born, people said. You either have what it takes or you don’t, and if you don’t you’ll never get it.
           
My first writing efforts didn’t have it. I thought I was doomed. Outside of my high school English teacher, Mrs. Marjorie Bruce, I didn’t get any encouragement at all.
           
In college, I took a writing course taught by Raymond Carver. I looked at the stuff he wrote; I looked at my stuff.
           
It wasn’t the same.
           
Because writing can’t be taught.
           
I started to believe it. I figured I didn’t have it and never would.
           
So I did other stuff. Like go to law school. Like join a law firm. Like give up my dream.
           
But the itch to write would not go away.
           
At age 34, I read an interview with a lawyer who’d had a novel published. And what he said hit me in my lengthy briefs. He said he’d had an accident and was almost killed. In the hospital, given a second chance at life, he decided the one thing he wanted was to be a writer. And he would write and write, even if he never got published, because that was what he wanted.
           
Well, I wanted it too.
           
But The Big Lie was still there, hovering around my brain, mocking me.
           
Especially when I began to study the craft.
           
I went out and bought my first book on fiction writing. It was Lawrence Block’s Writing the Novel. I also bought Syd Field’s book on screenwriting because anyone living in Los Angeles who has opposable thumbs is required to write a screenplay.
           
And I discovered the most incredible thing. The Big Lie was a lie. A person could learn how to write, because I was learning.
Eventually I was published. Then I started to teach what I’d learned. I wrote some articles for Writer’s Digest magazine that led to

my becoming the fiction columnist, and then to the appearance of Plot & Structure in October of 2004.

When there were no ebooks.
Imagine that.
Looking back at the last ten years, I would emphasize the following lessons from Plot & Structure:
1. You can learn the craft of writing fiction that sells.
2. Structure is what enables your story to connect with readers.
3. Don’t just write what you know. Write who you are.
4. Every scene has a purpose, and that purpose can and should be structured for the greatest effect.
5. If you know what effect you want to create, you can learn the techniques for making it happen.
6. Plots will drag unless the protagonist is forced, before the 20% mark, through a “doorway of no return.” This was my biggest contribution to structure studies. It explains how and why a story takes off –– or starts to drag.
7. There are only so many plot patterns. The magic happens when an author puts his unique style, imagination and feeling into the pattern.
8. Compelling fiction is always about death –– physical, professional, or psychological.
9. Act first, explain later. Start with a character in motion, doing something, wanting something. Readers will wait a long time for backstory and exposition if a character is moving.
10. Develop a vision for yourself as a writer. Make it something that excites you. Turn that into a mission. Live your dream.
My great thanks to Writer’s Digest Books and all who have been so complimentary over the years. Your messages, comments, emails and tweets mean the world to me.
Let’s keep the knockout fiction flowing…like champagne!

1+

Writing Doesn’t Make You a Better Writer

I was sitting contentedly at one of my branch offices (with the round green sign) when I overheard a curly-headed young man say, “The only way to learn how to write is to write!”
His female companion nodded with the reverential gaze of the weary pilgrim imbibing the grand secret of the universe from a wizened guru on a Himalayan summit. I dared not break the soporific spell. Even so, I was tempted to slide over and say, “And the only way to learn how to do brain surgery is to do brain surgery.”

I would have gone on to explain that it is too simplistic to say “writing makes you a better writer.” It might make you a better typist. But most writers want to produce prose that other people will actually buy. For that you need more than a clacking keyboard, as essential as that is to the career-minded writer.

Bobby Knight, the legendary basketball coach and tormenter of referees, had a wise saying: “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

That’s so true. If what you ingrain in your muscle memory are bad habits, you are not moving toward competence in your sport. In point of fact, you’re hurting your chances of getting to be the best you can be.

When I was learning basketball, I made sure my shot was fundamentally sound: elbow in, hands properly placed, perfect spin on the ball. I became one of the great shooters of my generation (he says, humbly). That skill never left me. At my first Bouchercon I got in the pickup basketball game that S. J. Rozan put together. Nobody knew me yet, but as we were shooting around Reed Farrel Coleman saw my shot and said, “Wow. Look at that spin!” That was cool. (I should have said to Reed, “Look at that prose!”)

But I had spent countless hours refining my shot with the proper fundamentals. By way of contrast, I’d play against kids who had goofy, elbow-out, sidespin shots that had never been corrected. They were never a long-term threat.

So, let’s get a few things straight about getting better at this craft:

1. You learn to write by learning how to write

As a kid I’d check out basketball books from the library and study them. Then I’d practice what I studied on my driveway. I’d watch players like Jerry West and Rick Barry and observe their technique. Later on, I got coaching, and once went to John Wooden’s basketball camp. I played in endless pickup games, and afterward I’d think about how I played and what I could do to improve.

Writers learn their craft by reading novels and picking up techniques.  Also by reading books on writing. Then they practice what they learn. They get coaching from editors and go to writers’ conferences. They write every day and after they write they think about how they wrote and what they can do to improve.

2. Creativity and craft go together

Every now and then some contrarian will say a writer should forget about “rules” and just write, man. That’s all you need to do! Rules only choke off your creativity. Burn all those Writer’s Digest books!

It’s a silly argument.

First, they use the word rules as if writing craft teachers (such as your humble correspondent) lay them out as law. But no one ever does that. We talk about the techniques that work because they have been proven to do so over and over again, in actual books that actually sell. And even if a technique is so rock solid someone calls it a rule, we always allow that rules can be broken if—and only if—you know why you’re breaking them and why doing so works better for your story.

What should be said by creativity mavens is this: creativity and the “wild mind” (Natalie Goldberg’s phrase) are the beginning but not the end of the whole creative enterprise. One of the skills the selling writer needs to develop is how to unleash the muse at the right time but then whip her material into shape for the greater needs of the story and the marketplace for that story.
That’s why structure is so important. Structure enables story to get through to readers, you know, the ones who dish out the lettuce. That’s why I call structure “translation software for your imagination.” I know many writers would love to be able to simply wear a beret, sit at Starbucks all day, and have whatever they write go out to the world and bring in abundant bank and critical accolades.

Not going to happen.

Meanwhile, more and more writers who have taken the time to study the craft are happily selling their books in this new, open marketplace we have.

3. Passion, precision and productivity make for writing success

To gain traction in this game, you would do well to consider the three Ps: passion, precision and productivity.

Passion.You find the kind of stories you are burning to tell. For me, it’s usually contemporary suspense. I love reading it, so that’s mostly what I write. But I also believe a writer can pick a genre and learnto love it. Like an arranged marriage. The key is to find some emotional investment in what you write (usually that happens by way of heavy investment in the characters you create). But that’s only the first step.

Precision.Eventually, the selling writers know precisely where the niche is for the books they write. They spend some time studying the market. That’s how all the pulp writers and freelancers of the past made a living. Dean Koontz at one time wanted to be a comic novelist like Joseph Heller. But when his war farce didn’t sell, he switched markets. He went all-in with thrillers. He’s done pretty well at this.

Productivity. Finally, selling writers produce the words. Even so, not everything will sell as hoped, but the words won’t be wasted. They will be making better writers, because they have studied the craft and keep on studying and never give up.

Therefore, writing friends, don’t be lulled into thinking all you have to do each day is traipse through the tulips of your fertile imaginings, fingers following along on the QWERTY tapper, recording every jot and tittle of your genius. That’s the fun part of writing, being totally wild and writing in the zone.  The work part of writing is sweating over the material so it has the best chance to connect with readers.  That is what makes you a better writer.

1+

Writing Wisdom From An Old Pro

@jamesscottbell

When I began studying writing in earnest it was with an eye to becoming a screenwriter. This was back in the day of the “screenwriting guru” explosion. Syd Field was the granddaddy. His Screenplay was my foundational book and led to my eventual breakthrough on structure. Soon, Robert McKee came on the scene, then John Truby and a few others. Acolytes of each would claim that their guy was the true originator of screenwriting knowledge for the unwashed mass of wannabes.

Only none of them were. The original guru was a veteran Hollywood screen and TV writer who started teaching for UCLA Extension in the 1950s. His book, Writing the Script, came out in 1980. Wells Root was his name and you can look up his credits on IMDB.
Wells Root directing Donna Reed in Mokey (1942)
The other day I turned on TCM and decided to watch a little of the upcoming flick, a B gangster picture from the 30s called Public Hero #1. I saw that it had Chester Morris in it, and I like his work. The credits rolled and lo and behold Wells Root was the screenwriter. Now I watched with added interest, and ended up taking in the whole thing. The plot moved, had twists and turns and original characters. A crisp 89 minutes. Nicely done, Wells!
So I went to my bookshelf and pulled down Writing the Script for a re-read.  
It’s nice to make its acquaintance again. Writing the Script is filled with gems of wisdom for both fiction and screen writers. And Root’s illustration of the three-act structure (as a raging river) is brilliant. He came up with this metaphor years before Syd Field’s famous three-act “paradigm.”
You see how the hero is in the river of story, being pulled by the current despite his best efforts with the oars. He gets thrust into the hazardous, rock-infested white water of Act 2. He fights all that only to hit a waterfall in Act 3. As he goes over the audience is asking, Will he drown or somehow make it to safe water?
I’ve always thought the best writing education would have been to be a young writer in Hollywood in the 30s. Then you could have hung out at Musso & Frank, listening to old scribes like Ben Hecht and Wells Root and John Howard Lawson. Over Martinis they would have provided a graduate course in the finer points of dramatic writing.
Since that era is long gone, Root’s book will have to do. So pull up a chair and listen to some of his advice:
Ultramodern, unstructured story design has an erratic record bringing bodies to the barn.
Drama favors the great saint or the great sinner—heroes and rascals who are above the common run. But they must still be as welcome in the village pub as in the manor house.
If you have the guts to be totally honest, nobody can write a character exactly as you can.
An unmistakable mark of a master craftsman is that he individualizes all his characters. (In the margin of the book I had scribbled “Moonstruck.”)
Although your heavy is a horror, make him or her also a vulnerable human being.
Write a man or woman or child who is everybody, but who becomes in your dramatic story an absorbing variation, a striking original.
The heights of emotional drama dwell in these scenes that plead truth from opposed points of view. Such conflicts, you will find, play with a special luminous power.
A story maker’s urgent priority should be awareness. A writer is always in his working clothes.
Agents and producers are flooded with the commonplace. Routine work will get you nothing but routine indifference.
So there it is, an afternoon hanging out with Wells Root, the first of the great screenwriting gurus.
Is there a “wise old scribe” in your background? Somebody from whom you got much needed advice? Tell us about it. [NOTE: I’ll be in travel mode today, so talk amongst yourselves and I’ll try to catch up later]

0

The Magical Midpoint Moment

 

Being a structure guy, I’ve always been fascinated by how story works. When I was first learning the craft, I spent a year studying the 3 Act structure, taking my cues primarily from Syd Field’s classic, Screenplay. In that book, Field talks about plot points, the hinges that lead the plot into Act 2 and Act 3. But I found frustrating a lack of definition of how these plot points worked. What was supposed to be in them? Field knew something happened, he sensed it, but wasn’t quite able to define it.
After watching movie after movie and charting their structures, it came to me. Especially that first plot point, which I began calling “the doorway of no return.” That’s because something has to happen to thrust the lead character into the dangers of Act 2. When you know this in your plot, and put it in the right place, it keeps your novel from dragging and gives it the momentum it needs to carry it to the end. It’s crucially important. 
Then, a couple of years ago, I decided to do more in-depth study on what many writing teachers call the “midpoint.” If you do a search about midpoint on the Internet, you’ll find all sorts of ideas about what is supposed to happen here. Some people talk about “raising the stakes.” Others talk about this being the point of commitment. Still others say it’s a change in the direction of the story, or the gathering of new information, or the start of time pressure.
So once again I started watching movies with the midpoint in mind. And what I found blew me away. Even though the writers may not have been conscious of it, they were creating something in the middle of their stories that pulled together the entire narrative.  The name I gave it is the “look in the mirror” moment. My workshop slide looks like this:
At this point in the story, the character figuratively looks at himself. He takes stock of where he is in the conflict and, depending on the type of story, has either of two basic thoughts. In a character-driven story, he looks at himself and wonders what kind of person he is. What is he becoming? If he continues the fight of Act 2, how will he be different? What will he have to do to overcome himself? Or how will he have to change in order to battle successfully?
The second type of look is more for plot-driven fiction. It’s where the character looks at himself and considers the odds against him. At this point the forces seem so vast that there is virtually no way to go on and not face certain death. That death can be professional, physical, or psychological.

These two basic thoughts are not mutually exclusive. For example, an action story may be given added heft by incorporating the first kind of reflection into the narrative. This happens in Lethal Weapon when Riggs bares his soul to Murtaugh, admitting that killing people is “the only thing I was ever good at.”
A few more examples may help.
In Casablanca, at the exact midpoint of the film, Ilsa comes to Rick’s saloon after closing. Rick has been getting drunk, remembering with bitterness what happened with him and Ilsa in Paris. Ilsa comes to him to try to explain why she left him in Paris, that she found out her husband Viktor Lazlo was still alive. She pleads with him to understand. But Rick is so bitter he basically calls her a whore. She weeps and leaves. And Rick, full of self disgust, puts his head in his hands. He is thinking, “What have I become?” 
 
The rest of the film will determine whether he stays a selfish drunk, or regains his humanity. That, in fact, is what Casablancais truly about, in both narrative and theme.
In The Fugitive, an action film, at the very center point of the movie Dr. Kimble is awakened in the basement room he’s renting, by cops swarming all over the place. He thinks they are after him, but it turns out they are actually after the son of the landlord. But the damage is done. Kimble breaks down. He is looking at the odds, thinking there’s no way he can win this fight. There are too many resources arrayed against him.
 
 
Then I went looking for the midpoint of Gone With The Wind, the novel. I opened to the middle of the book and started hunting. And there it was. At the end of Chapter 15, Scarlett looks inside herself, realizing that no one else but she can save Tara.
The trampled acres of Tara were all that was left to her, now that Mother and Ashley were gone, now that Gerald was senile from shock . . . security and position had vanished overnight. As from another world she remembered a conversation with her father about the land and wondered how she could have been so young, so ignorant, as not to understand what he meant when he said that the land was the one thing in the world worth fighting for.
Scarlett wonders what kind of person she has to become in order to save Tara. And the decision is made in the last paragraph:
Yes, Tara was worth fighting for, and she accepted simply and without question the fight. No one was going to get Tara away from her. No one was going to send her and her people adrift on the charity of relatives. She would hold Tara, if she had to break the back of every person on it.
 
And that is the essence of GWTW. It’s the story of a young Southern belle who is forced (via a doorway of no return called The Civil War) to save her family home. 

Also, notice how this is different from other definitions of the midpoint you’ll see. Virtually all books on the craft approach it as another “plot” point. Something external happens that changes the course of the story. But what I detect is a character point, something internal, which has the added benefit of bonding audience and character on a deeper level.

In preparing for this post, I grabbed three of my favorite movies and went to their midpoints. Here’s what I found:
 
In Moontstruck,right smack dab in the middle, is the scene where Loretta goes into the confessional, because she has “slept with the brother of my fiancé.” The priest says, “That’s a pretty big sin.” Loretta says, “I know . . .” And the priest tells her, “Reflect on your life!” He is actually instructing her to look in the mirror! 
There’s a perfect mirror moment in It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s the moment where Mr. Potter offers George Bailey a well-paid position with his firm, a job that will mean security for George’s growing family. In return, though, George will have to give up the Building & Loan his father started. Potter offers George a cigar and George asks for time to think it over. He is actually requesting look-in-the-mirror time, and is seriously considering this move. Then he shakes Potter’s hand, and the oily exchange suddenly clarifies what’s at stake for him as a person.  “No,” he says, “now wait a minute here. I don’t need twenty-four hours. I don’t have to talk to anybody. I know right now, and the answer’s No!” George had to make a decision as to what kind of man he was going to be. And he chose not to become another Potter.

Finally, in Sunset Boulevard, in the middle of the movie to the minute, Joe Gillis also has to decide what kind of man he is. Norma Desmond, his benefactor and lover, has tried to kill herself because Joe found a girl his own age that he wants to start seeing. When Joe hears about it he rushes back to her mansion with the thought that he’ll finally tell her it’s over, that he’s leaving. But she threatens to do it again. And Joe sits down, literally, next to a mirror. In that moment he makes his fateful decision, the one that drives the rest of the movie.

Could the reason these movies are classics, and others not, be that the writers understood the power of the look in the mirror? Whether instinctive or purposeful, they knew exactly what to do.

Books:

In the middle of The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice is alone in her room, having just heard of Chilton’s betrayal of Lecter, meaning she won’t get any more information from him, meaning the certain death of the kidnapped girl she’s been trying to save. The odds are now firmly against her and the FBI. In the shower, Clarice reflects back on a childhood memory which symbolizes loss for her.

At the midpoint of The Hunger Games, Katniss accepts the fact that she’s going to die. The odds are too great: I know the end is coming. My legs are shaking and my heart is too quick . . . . My fingers stroke the smooth ground, sliding easily across the top. This is an okay place to die, I think.

And, if I may, in the exact middle of my thriller, Try Dying, Ty Buchanan’s home has just been firebombed. His fiancée has been murdered. And he reflects on two kinds of people, those who keep driving toward something, and those who have “given up the fight.”
 
The question I had, and couldn’t answer, was which kind was I?


Of course, not every film or book will have a “mirror moment” like I’ve described. But the ones that do have a depth about them, a better cohesion and focus, and a satisfying arc. That’s the sort of thing that makes a reader search out more of an author’s work.

 
Since I incorporated “look in the mirror moment” into my workshops, students have reported it has been incredibly helpful in discovering what their novels are really all about. The nice thing is you can explore this moment at any time in your writing process. You can play with it, tweak it. Whether you are a plotter or pantser, just thinking about what the “look in the mirror” might reveal will help you find the real heart of your novel.
That’s why it’s a magic moment (cue The Drifters)
UPDATE: Since this post first appeared, I’ve written a book on the subject called Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between

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Solid Structure


[Note: John Ramsey Miller and I are switching days this week.]

I love to teach structure, and Joe’s post on Wednesday brought up a tremendously important question. Someone in another writing forum wanted to know how you figure out where to end Act 2, and go into Act 3.

The question of where the act breaks go, and what they entail, may be the most crucial in all of dramatic structure, because if they are weak, the entire edifice of the story will be unsound. Knowing how to fix them will go a long way toward making your novel more readable.

Think of novel structure as a suspension bridge.

As is obvious from the picture above, the suspension bridge is held up primarily by the two supporting pylons, one near the beginning of the bridge and one near the end. Without these pylons in those exact spots, the bridge will not be stable.

Now looking at the picture you can see that it perfectly represents the 3 act structure. A solidly constructed novel will look just like a solidly constructed suspension bridge. If that first pylon is placed too far out from the beginning, the first “act” of the bridge will sag and sway. In a book or movie, it means the first act is starting to drag.

Similarly, if the second pylon is misplaced, you’ll end up either with anti-climax (the pylon too far away from the shore) or a feeling of deus ex machina (the pylon too close).

In my book, Plot & Structure, I refer to these pylons as “doorways of no return.” I wanted to convey the idea of being forced through doorways, and once that’s done, you can’t go back again. Life will never be the same for the Lead. If you don’t have that feeling in your story, the stakes aren’t high enough.

Now, the first doorway is an event that thrusts the Lead into the conflict of Act 2. It is not, and this is crucial, just a decision to go looking around in the “dark world” (to use mythic terms). That’s weak. That’s not being forced.

A good example of a first doorway is when Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle are murdered by the forces of the Empire in Star Wars. That compels Luke to leave his home planet and seek to become a Jedi, to fight the evil forces. If the murders didn’t happen, Luke would have stayed on his planet as a farmer. He had to be forced out.

In Gone With the Wind it’s the outbreak of the Civil War. Hard to miss that one. No one can go back again to the way things were. Scarlett O’Hara is going to be forced to deal with life in a way she never wanted or anticipated.

In The Wizard of Oz, it’s the twister (hint: if a movie changed from black and white to color, odds are you’ve passed through the first doorway of no return).

In The Fugitive, the first doorway is the train wreck that enables Richard Kimble to escape, a long sequence that ends at the 30 minute mark (perfect structure) and has U. S. Marshal Sam Gerard declaring, “Your fugitive’s name is Dr. Richard Kimble. Go get him!”

The second doorway, the one that closes Act 2 and leads to Act 3, is a bit more malleable, but just as critical. It is a clue or discovery, or set-back or crisis, one which makes inevitable the final battle of Act 3. It is the doorway that makes an ending possible. Without this, the novel could go on forever (and some seem to for lack of this act break).

In The Fugitive, at the 90 minute mark (the right placement for a film of just over two hours), Kimble breaks into the one-armed man’s house and finds the key evidence linking him with the pharmaceutical company. This clue leads to the inevitable showdown with the “behind the scenes” villain.

In High Noon, the town marshal reaches the major crisis: he finally realizes no one in the town is going to help him fight the bad guys. That forces him into the final battle of Act 3, the showdown with the four killers.

By the way, this structure works for both “plot driven” and “character driven” stories. It’s just that the former is mainly about outside events, and the latter about the inner journey. But that’s beyond the scope of this post.

Now, there is always some well meaning literary genius howling in protest at the idea of structure. Too rigid! I don’t write by formula! I am a rule breaker, a rebel! An artist! Away with your blueprints and let me run free! The 3 act structure is dead!

Let me say, first, I understand this artistic impulse. A good writer is a rebel, someone out to make waves.

But let me also say that the literary waters are littered with the works of those who ignored the basic principles of the suspension bridge. Unreadable novels with pretty words that didn’t sell.

You want to write an experimental novel? Go for it. Just be aware that not a whole lot of people are going to care.

What they care about are characters, dealing with trouble by fighting their way over a bridge—meaning, through a plot that matters and is laid out in the right way.

Structure is “translation software” for your imagination. You’ve got a great story in your head. The characters, the feeling, the tone, the gut appeal, the thing you want to say. But it means squat unless you can share it with other people, namely, readers.

Structure allows you to get your story out with the greatest possible impact.

“But that’s formulaic!” Well guess what, Skippy: formulas are formulas because they work. Try making an omelet without eggs. What you, the writer, need to do is get people so caught up in the characters and stakes that they can’t see the structure.

Many published authors know this instinctively. But if there are problems with their novels, they may not always know where to look for the fix.

Is the first act slow? Does the novel take too long to end? Does act 2 seem interminable? Is the ending anti-climactic?

Most likely, the problem is structural. Get a grip on it, and your writing will only get stronger.

Your novel, in other words, won’t end up as a bridge to nowhere.

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