Earlier this year, I read an ARC of Liz Coley’s Pretty Girl-13 (also published as Pretty Girl Thirteen), and loved it. We’re talking five-star love. And I am stingy with love😉 Here’s Liz guest-blogging about plotting. Details about the author and book are at the end.
The Plot Thickens
By Liz Coley
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
W. Somerset Maugham
There are numerous craft-of-writing books offering advice on creating riveting plots. It has also been said that there is only one true plot underlying them all: A being with a goal struggles towards it, meets with obstacles, and eventually through strength or weakness of character either succeeds or fails, either way, changing or gaining knowledge in the process. Some books suggest that conceiving your plot as a series of scenes is the way to go; each scene possessing an opening, a goal, a conflict, and a change. Others offer templates by classifying different types of goals or obstacles or starting points or ending points. It’s confusing and contradictory enough to make a self-confessed pantser like me weep.
The craft book that gave me the most helpful and enduring advice on plotting is Story by Robert McKee. It’s a fairly long book with elements of all of the above approaches, but I’ll share the most important structural idea I gathered from reading. It may not even be exactly what he said, but it’s my takeaway. I’ll point out that McKee is a screen-writer, so his bias is toward stories that fit the dramatic template and the pattern of rising tension that holds us in our seats for two to three hours.
McKee taught me the three-act structure for pacing and plotting. He described Act I as the first twenty minutes of the movie, in which we are introduced to the main character and his or her problem/goal. The end of Act I is the first substantial conflict or reveal or twist. In books of the length I write, this almost always corresponds to the end of chapter three, which is perfect, because that is the submission sample length (50 manuscript pages) generally agreed on in the publishing industry. So when I start writing, I aim toward that point, asking myself, what’s the first really awful set-back, twist, reveal, injury I can inflict on my main character. That’s not to say the novel opening doesn’t plant the seeds or that chapter one doesn’t end on a very tense note. It’s to say that the first continuous phase of the action culminates in this Act I climax.
Act II is the long middle of the book, consisting of about half the final page count, and is broken by a mid-act climax and finishes with an even more intense climax. When I start writing, it gives me two more major plot developments to aim toward and sets the pace, even if I don’t have all the details of the scenes in between them (see self-confessed pantser, above). Writing these two climax scenes is often the most emotionally rewarding part for me by the time I get there, because they have been simmering in my imagination as the groundwork is laid ahead of them. Stephen King describes it as driving in the dark with the headlights on – you can see only a little way down the road, but fortunately you know where you are headed.
Act III is the hardest one for me to write. I’ve already thwarted and tortured the main character for 150 manuscript pages. I’ve come up with an awesome climactic end to Act II, and yet it has to be topped somehow in Act III. Think of Frodo, battered and beaten; he’s forced himself all the way into the heart of Mount Doom, physically and psychologically. He knows he won’t ever make it back to the Shire. You think, thank goodness he’s accomplished his goal. Yet one more awful thing has to happen – a final challenge, a final test with the highest stakes of all. Gollum will bite his finger off, steal the ring, and grapple for control on the edge of the precipice over a boiling lava pit. Act III is another short one, mirroring the first. In romantic movies, it’s often much abbreviated. The couple has split up at the end of Act II. Act III has a few scenes of bleak life without each other, a montage maybe, then a sudden event or reveal or twist that sends them running back to each other. In novels, sometimes Act III takes its time developing and sometimes it’s a mad rush to the airport.
How have I implemented this advice? As I said before, self-confessed pantser! Still, focusing on the four major turning points that create the three acts for the main plot helps me set pins in the map so my route doesn’t meander. It forces me to think of escalating conflict and consequences. The manuscripts I wrote before and after reading Story reflect a growing ability to think this way. Pretty Girl-13 is explicitly divided by acts in the sections “You,” “We” and “I”. My work-in-progress is similarly divided into named parts that match the act divisions. I find this model a very useful approach to linking form and function.
Pretty Girl-13 [also published as Pretty Girl Thirteen]
HarperCollins (UK: 28th February 2013; AU: 14th March 2013; US & CA: 19th March 2013)
Buy (US) [Hardcover] Buy (US) [Kindle] Buy (UK) Buy (CA) Buy (Worldwide)
Angie Chapman is only 13 when she gets lost in the woods in the middle of the night. The next thing she knows she’s returned home, scars around her wrists and ankles, physically exhausted. Her parents collapse into tears when they see her, but Angie doesn’t understand – until they tell her she has been missing, presumed dead, for three years. Angie doesn′t remember anything from her missing years. But there are people who do – people who could tell Angie every terrifying detail, if only they weren’t locked inside her mind. With help, Angie begins to unravel the darkest secrets of her own past. But does she really want to know the truth?
Author photo from LizColey.com