The Three Act Structure

In his book, Plot and Structure, (see the link in my previous post), author and speaker, James Scott Bell, offers this definition of his terms.  Plot concerns the elements of a story, what happens.  Structure is about the timing of those events – when they happen.

The Three Act Structure is the default of storytelling and has been, according to Bell, at least since time of Aristotle.  A novelist doesn’t need to use it, but like an oil painter who decides to forgo a flat, rectangular surface, it is good to know what you are doing instead.

Screenwriters don’t even have the choice to stray.  So pervasive is the influence of Syd Fields, a champion of the three act structure in movies, that studios often specify it in their contracts.  (See the link to Syd Fields’ Screenplay in this post ( ).

Every writer about writing who discusses what belongs in the Beginning, Middle, and End is implicitly endorsing what Bell and Fields refer to as Act I, Act II, and Act III, but both of these writers offer more detailed terminology that helps flesh out the concept.  Setup, Conflict, Resolution are Fields’ terms.  I once heard a screenwriter use those exact words to describe what you need to pitch to a producer in the three sentences or so they are willing to listen to.  Literary agents give similar advice.

Bell and Fields offer nearly identical diagrams of the three act structure:

The thing to notice here is the timing.  Act I, the Setup, where we meet the protagonist(s), their problem, and their world lasts for about a quarter of the story.  Act II, the trials and tribulations lasts for half of the novel or movie, and Act III, which often includes a final battle or chase, takes up the last quarter of the manuscript.

Syd Fields uses “Plot Point” to signal the dramatic event that bridges two of the Acts.  I prefer Bell’s term, “Doorway of No Return,” because usually the previous world is swept away, and going home again is no longer possible.  Neo chooses the red pill.  Louise shoots a man.  A rider interrupts the party at Tara to announce that the Civil War has begun.

It’s fun to watch for the moment this happens in movies, since the timing tends to be very precise.  In a two hour film, something will occur very close to the half-hour point that locks the hero into the conflict – he cannot go back to the Shire.

The second Doorway of No Return, about three-quarters into the film or novel, guarantees the final showdown.  Gary Cooper watches the last train pull out of town, and it’s almost noon.  When he and Trinity rescue Morpheus, Neo really believes, for the first time, that he is “The One.”  In True Grit, Maddie sees the man who shot her father at the river.  He does not notice her.  She could slip away, but once she draws her pistol and orders him to surrender, the final battle is underway.

As I said in my previous post, I find a lot of useful suggestions in James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure, including the clearest discussion I know of the Three Act Structure.  Still, thanks to Google, you don’t need a book to gather a lot of good information, including suggestions that the Three Act Structure is passe, an impediment, or a device for mere genre-writers.   We can use it or not but it seems to me that any writer can benefit from understanding the concept.

A Conference and a Resolution

“If we had more stories as children, we would need fewer psychiatrists as adults.” – James Hillman

On Saturday, I attended the Spring Spirit Conference of the North/Central region of the SCBWI – Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.  This all day event took place in Rocklin, just 20 minutes from home.  It featured seminars and critiques by writers, editors and agents, aimed at people who write for children and young adults.  I had registered at the end of December, but as the day rolled around, I wasn’t that anxious to go.

Part of it was simple fatigue, the after-effect of this spring’s flu.  Part of it was a kind of burnout.  Earlier this week, as I was reviewing a manuscript for one of my critique groups, I caught myself writing a comment out of habit – a knee jerk response I was not even sure was true.  I’ve found myself doing that several times recently, and as a result, I was feeling an impulse to step away and sort out some ideas that didn’t feel like mine.  I wasn’t sure I needed a professional gathering where I was likely to pick up more.

I was pleasantly surprised by the keynote speaker, author and teacher, Bruce Coville.  “Take everything the presenters say with a grain of salt,” he said.  “Your job is to find your own truth.”  Those words turned my day around.  They set the tone of the day, as did his later seminar on writing fantasy, a genre he notes is snubbed by some literati as less than properly serious.  “Tell that to Homer, to Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare,” Coville said.

Sometimes I write fairytales because it’s the best way to tell the truth.” – C.S. Lewis

As I went through they day, an ongoing problem that is really mine came into focus.  I’ve been stalling out on my current book because several key plot elements need to be re-imagined.  Slogging away is not going to do it this time.  I’ve known I need to take a break, take a step back, but that isn’t easy for an A-Type, yankee-ingenuity, roll-up-your-sleeves mentality.  I needed some kind of plan to make it okay to take a break.  And I found one.

When in doubt, read, read, read.  That in itself is a great idea, but I find it hard to study really compelling books when the great ones sweep me into the story from the start – I’ll do the objective stuff later, and later never comes.  I happened to flip through the first book I ever bought specifically to help with plot and structure, called (would you believe) “Plot and Structure,” by James Scott Bell.

Toward the back of the book, Bell addresses that whole issue in a section called, “How to Improve Your Plotting Exponentially.”  It involves getting half a dozen novels, ones you have read or new ones.  Read them first for pleasure, then read them again with a stack of 3×5 cards and note the events, characters and purpose of every single scene.  Review them when done (like “forming a movie in your head,” says Bell).  Finally, lay out the cards and see how the scenes fit into the traditional three-act structure.  Where are the key plot points?  Where is “the door of no return?”  Where is the final battle joined?

This will take eight to twelve weeks, Bell estimates, but because of all that I earlier learned from him, I’m willing to test his estimation that during those weeks “you will jump ahead of 99 percent of all the other aspiring writer out there, most of whom try to find out how to plot by trial and error.” Trial and error has always been iffy for me.

So I’m giving myself permission to take a reading break.  I’ve already downloaded three books to my Kindle:

1)  The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, an acclaimed, post-apocolyptic story for young adults.   I started it yesterday and found to my delight, a YA story I can’t put down – I haven’t come upon too many of those recently.

2)  Gone For Good, by Harlan Coben.  This violates Bell’s instructions to stick with the type of book I want to write, but I’ve meant to read this ever since I saw Donald Maass praise the story in his Breakout Novel Workbook.  Besides, I really enjoy action/adventure and believe the genre contains elements that can improve any sort of writing.

3)  Hollowland by Amanda Hocking.  About time I read something by her!

From time to time I will report back on how this goes and probably review at least some of the titles, but right now, I have to get back to  The Hunger Games!

Between a Plot and a Hard place

Okay, okay, so I should be pun-ished for a title like that.  This post is really about finding one’s own right brain/left brain balance in plotting a novel, but I couldn’t work that into a catchy phrase.

The topic was suggested by an article on my friend, Rosi Hollenbeck’s blog, The WriteStuff,  Like all of Rosi’s posts, there is a lot to think about, but this one happens to feature a very flattering account of yours truly.  She talks about another writing friend, the inspiration she finds in Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, and then she describes her own process of weaving a story.

Of my approach, she says:  “What amazes me is the discipline he brings to his writing. He works very hard at learning his craft and even writes synopses before he writes the books. I suspect he even outlines. He always knows where he’s going.” (I wish!)

Of her own method, Rosi says:  “I don’t even feel as if I’m in charge. I sit down with an inkling of an idea and characters walk into my head, fully formed and usually named, and tell me their stories.”

At this time, I am re-imagining my villain and his machinations, which makes it interesting to review some tactics I have used in the past and where they lie between the poles of pre-planning and letting things happen.

Rosi is wrong about one thing:  I am constitutionally incapable of outlining.  Several times over the years I came up with ideas for novels.  Unfortunately, I thought you had to start with an outline, and the inspirations never survived the attempt.  My breakthrough came during my years with the Sacramento Storytellers Guild when I learned that accomplished storytellers do not memorize their tales, but see the story unfold in the mind’s eye and describe the the inner drama.  I discovered this is my natural way of writing too – describing the inner visions with written rather than spoken words.

The advantage of such an approach is the excitement of the unknown and the adventure of discovery, of sitting down and wondering, “What’s going to happen today?”  The downside is incoherent plots.  After 2+ years, I abandoned my first novel as a wonderful learning experience, but one that could not be rescued.  Clearly, what I had learned in the visual arts applies to writing too – the visions of raw imagination must be carefully shaped if I want them to have meaning to anyone else but me.

I set about studying plot and structure, and now my process is something like this:

1)  Write the first chapter and a one line synopsis.  While studying screenwriting, I learned that “high-concept” movies – the only ones that get made these days – can be summarized in one sentence.  I would go so far as to say that until I can do that, I don’t have a story to tell.  Here’s the tagline for Karyn’s Magic:

An apprentice magician must stop a supernatural killer she unwittingly releases from his prison between the worlds.

2) Write a one paragraph synopsis (3-5 sentences).  I do this while writing maybe the first three chapters.  This is also a tactic I picked up from a screenwriter who was telling how she pitches her concept to a producer:  setup – conflict – resolution.

3)  Write a one page synopsis.  I’m going to have to do this anyway, and since a one page synopsis will reveal any glaring plot flaws, I might as well do it when I’m 30-40 pages in rather than 200.  The one page synopsis functions like a map that changes as the story landscape changes, and often the two play together nicely.

4)  The final tool I’ve come to rely on is a scene summary, an idea I got from Syd Field’s excellent book, Screenplay.  As described in an earlier post, a scene summary is a line or two on a 3×5 card that triggers a kind of mental storyboard image of what is going to happen.  Field’s suggest 52, 3×5 cards for a movie, a number he tried because a friend pointed out there are 52 cards on a deck, and which he continues to use because it works:  13 scenes in Act I, 26 scenes in Act II, 13 scenes in Act III.  Here are the two scenes that comprise the first chapter of Karyn’s Magic:

  1. When Karyn Robinson is twelve, her mother dies in a tragic accident, leaving her and her sister Emily, destitute.  (Inciting Incident – sets story in motion).
  2. Kari, proud of her half-fairy ancestry is fascinated by magic, and seeks a prosperity spell from a gypsy.  Despite her sister’s skepticism, Kari follows the gypsy’s instructions.


Letting things happen and planning them out – both are valuable tools, and there’s a time and place for each, but neither is really up to my current task, re-visioning my villain.  He’s already been through several iterations – you could say he exists in several parallel universes.  I don’t need to write more universes or organize the ones I’ve got;  what I need is answers to questions I don’t yet know how to ask.

I need something more powerful than any bag of tricks, something for which there aren’t any rules.  I need a skill I had in spades when I was a kid, but which has been buried by decades of “practical matters.”  I need to drop my sophistication and get to the world of Let’s Pretend.

I guess its a little like Narnia – being grown-up keeps you out, and the entrance is seldom in the same place twice.  Meanwhile two of the dogs are fussing at me, as if they think I’ve been at the computer too long, and they are right.  They want to pretend they are wolves, and I think it’s time I helped them.  The dogs don’t think my concerns are all that urgent, and maybe they’re right.  Besides, animals know how to open the gates of other worlds.

Dwight Swain’s Motivation-Reaction Units

A recent discussion in one of my critique groups sent me back to my reference-of-choice for writing fiction, the book I would probably pick if I could have only one book on writing.  This is the writing book I’ve read cover to cover twice and dipped into many other times.  It was written in 1965 and updated in 1982 by Dwight Swain, a long-time professor at the University of Oklahoma, who gave it the slightly embarrassing title, Techniques of the Selling Writer.  I’m sure he did it on purpose.  There’s a no-nonsense, let’s-get-real quality to the book; show me a writer who wouldn’t like to get paid for prose.

I went back to the text to look up one of Swain’s most valuable concepts, and hands down, the one with the silliest name: the Motivation-Reaction Unit, aka, (you guessed it) the MRU.  I think this name is deliberate too; once you get it, you never forget it.  You can look up another take on MRU’s on Randy Intermanson’s, the site where I first heard of Dwight Swain:


Motivation-Reaction Unit is the fundamental building block of an action sequence (it’s important to stress that it does not apply do description, exposition, or reverie).  It’s pretty simple:  something happens, the hero reacts to it, the situation changes, and something else happens.  How characters react to events will largely determine their plausibility and how closely we bond with them.

There’s a lot more to it than that, of course, but this is an introduction.

The Motivation part is the easiest:  something external happens, something apprehended by the senses.  The house catches fire, a car almost hits me, the boss says, “You’re fired,” I pass a bakery and smell bread like my grandmother used to bake.  The key point here is to chose events that are meaningful to the character or the story:  a flight of Canadian geese overhead might change the life of a man in a dead-end job and a loveless marriage, who has always equated birds with freedom, but if the same man only worries about getting pooped on, why include it at all?

The Reaction component is harder:  it includes three events that Swain calls Feeling, Action, and Speech.  Ingermanson calls them Feeling, Reflex, and Speech.  I call them “Involuntary Response, Reflex, and Speech/Decision.  In real life they can be virtually simultaneous, but in fiction we need to write them sequentially.

Feeling, as Swain uses it, refers to an immediate, involuntary response –  what do you do when a horn blares behind you?  That is why I prefer “involuntary response.”  It may be physiological – you jump out of your skin at the horn, but depending on the stimulus, it could be a memory – what does the smell of the bread bring up?

Reflex or Action is a response I have some control over, and as such, will reveal more of my character than being startled by a loud noise.  I may spin in the direction of the horn with clenched fists.  Or grasp a parking meter to steady myself.  Or count to ten.  Or pull the gun from my shoulder holster.

Speech/Decision is where response is most rational.  It’s going to involve rational thought/feeling, expressed as speech or as inner dialog, and maybe a decision.  Maybe the horn-blower is Eddie Haskel, an old high school adversary.  Maybe I say, “Jeeper’s Eddie, I’ve asked you before to quit doing that,” then I slink away with bent shoulders, berating myself once again for not standing up to him.  Maybe I aim my 38 at his head and say, “This time you’ve gone too far, dirt bag!”  Maybe, if I’ve smelled grandmother’s bread, I think “There’s a poker game tonight.  If I’m lucky, I could win bus fare to get back home.”

The key point Swain makes is that we don’t need all three responses to every stimulus; two or even one will do, but, the responses must come in this order, from least-to-most “rational” to avoid confusion.  It makes no sense to say, “When I spotted Eddie Haskell, I drew my 38 and aimed at his head.  I nearly jumped out of my skin when he blared the horn.”  You get the idea.


We want readers to feel what we want them to feel, and our greatest chance is usually through the protagonist.  If the audience bond’s with our lead character, and the character’s responses to events are plausible, the audience will deeply experience what they experience.  Huck Finn, Ebenezer Scrooge, Frodo Baggins.  Swain has presented a template.  Constraining?   Yes, but like the constraints of a three act structure, or pigment on a rectangular canvas, I think there’s a lot of room for creativity within the MRU structure.

I caught myself not long ago, relying too heavily on just the immediate and largely inarticulate visceral responses of my character to convey emotional states; it wasn’t working.  When I came back to Swain I realized I had a pattern.  I realized my approach wasn’t wrong, so much as it was insufficient.  I had more work to do.  We always have more work to do – it helps when we know what it is.

How Garth Nix Writes a Novel

Who is Garth Nix?  He is a prolific Australian writer of young adult fantasy, whose “Abhorsen Trilogy,” (1995-2003) more than any other fiction, inspired my own current efforts, and “gave me permission” to write the stories I’m working on now.

Garth Nix and Yokimo at World Fantasy Con 2009

Writing anything is better than not writing something perfect – Garth Nix

Abhorsens (there is only one at a time), are necromancers charged with keeping the dead, dead – the nastiest dead do not want to stay that way. We’re talking zombies before zombies were cool. In Liraeal (2001), my favorite book of the series, a young woman, apparently a washout from an academy of magical women, sets out with her only friend, the Disreputable Dog, and an inexperienced prince, to save a thinly disguised England and Scotland from several “Greater Dead” leaders of an army of reanimated corpses. Great stuff, like I said!

You can’t write if you don’t read – Garth Nix

Tonight I was browsing Garth Nix’s website (there is a permanent link on my Blogroll) and I came across the author’s account of the nine general stages he has gone thorough in the creation of his 14 novels.>

The nine stages are:

  1. Daydreams and Musing
  2. A Small Vision
  3. Building the Bones
  4. That First Chapter
  5. The Long, Hard Slog
  6. Sprinting Home
  7. Rest and Revision
  8. Revulsion and Dejection
  9. Parting Company

It is instructive to read all of his comments, but here is a summary:

Daydreams and Musing

This is about gathering ideas.  Nix says many people think coming up with ideas is difficult, but he says it’s easy, the fun part.  The difficulties come later.  Images, snatches of conversation, a hunch of a character, these are the the sort of things he gathers, like picking up rocks which “may or may not contain a useful gem.”   He gives examples:

  • The look of the sky in summer when a light rain is falling at sunset
  • Two old men bickering light-heartedly on the street about something that occurred forty years ago
  • The Venetian agents who stole the body of St Mark from Alexandria
  • A car with a cracked speedometer

A Small Vision

This, says Nix, is like a still from a movie he knows nothing about, but it will evoke a mood:

“Two old men are watching the rain from inside a car (with a cracked speedometer) as the sun sets in the distance, discussing their famous expedition to Alexandria to recover the body of St Mark and take it to Venice. The mood is somber and melancholic, something terrible is about to happen.”

Out of this, he is likely to build a scene, often, but not necessarily, the first one.

Building the Bones

After weeks or months or even years, Nix will review any notes he has made, and write a very simple chapter summary.  He says he often does not know why he does this, since he usually diverges from any such plan within a few chapters, and by the half-way mark the book has little if any relation to the outline, but he notes that an outline serves other purposes:

…it makes me think about the overall structure of the novel, which I think kickstarts some subconscious process that will continue through the writing, monitoring the narrative structure. The second purpose is that it serves as a psychological prop. If I have a chapter outline, I presume I know where I’m going, even when I don’t really.

Chapter Outline for "Sabriel"


The First Chapter

By “first chapter,” Nix says he usually means “prologue,” and that once that and the chapter outline (in whichever order) are complete, the book usually rests for weeks or months.   During the interval he works on other things, and continues to think about the project, but doesn’t actually work on it.

The Long, Hard Slog

Nix always used to write first drafts longhand before copying them to a computer.  Now he is not likely to do an entire draft longhand, but usually the opening chapter(s) are first written in notebooks.  I never tell myself I am writing a 100,000 word book. When I sit down to write, I focus on the fact that I am writing a 2,000-4,000 word chapter. A chapter is a do-able thing. Even so, he calls it a slog, and says 90% of his writing time is an uphill battle to complete the first 2/3 of the novel.

Sprinting Home

At a late stage in the narrative, the writing will kick into overdrive, and the author will find himself working both day and night (he ordinarily likes to keep regular office hours and spend evenings with his family.  I think there is some relationship between the energy put into a book and the energy of the narrative, and when everything is building to the climax and resolution of the story I think that for me at least, it helps to keep at it, to write fast and really charge for the finish line.

Rest and Revision

Nix likes to let the story lie fallow for several weeks before doing revisions, though he says now that’s he is often working on deadline, he has only so much time before he has to send it off to an editor.

Revulsion and Dejection

Nix says, …halfway through a book I usually doubt my work, but I get over it and keep going. Often, when the book is done and has gone off to the editor, this doubt returns and I think that not only have I lost the ability to write, I’ve demonstrated this lack in the latest manuscript. He mentions several of his strategies for getting past this mindset on the website.

Parting Company

The final point he makes is the importance of letting go.   Before breaking into print, Nix worked as an editor at HarperCollins, and says,  In my years in publishing I often met authors whose whole self was entirely bound up in a single book, usually their first. Their lives would rise or fall depending solely on that book’s fate, and in this business, that’s an incredibly foolhardy and dangerous gamble to make.

Garth Nix first came to my attention through an interview in the arts section of the local paper.  I liked his matter-of-fact tone about his writing process then, and I like it on his website now.  He simply offers his process as one approach, not the approach, and the message is, you really do know what to do – now go do it.

Just write one chapter at a time and one day you’ll be surprised by your own finished novel – Garth Nix

Donald Maass and the Breakout Novel

I first heard about Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass in a notice from Amazon, but dismissed the book, reasoning that writing a novel is hard enough without the added burden of trying to invent the next Harry Potter.

Later, a friend in one of my critique groups recommended the book and passed around his copy. I found it interesting enough to order and  give a quick read, but it wasn’t until a few months later that I really started to pay attention.   In that time, my friend’s fiction improved so dramatically that I gave the book a second reading and ordered its companion, the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.

As a literary agent for 25 years, and the author of 14 novels (under pseudonyms), Maass knows the publishing industry. In the Breakout Novel introduction, he says good enough is not good enough anymore: “the midlist has been in crisis since I was a green editorial assistant in 1977. Its demise has been pronounced many times. I never believed it…until now.”

The reasons he cites pale beside the experience of another critique group friend, author of ten published biographies for children.  She passed around a rejection letter she had received from an editor for a novel she recently submitted:  I loved your story.  I stayed up late to finish it.  Unfortunately, I do not think it has the qualities that will allow it to break out.

It’s not hopeless, according to Maass, and as a matter of fact, we not simply pawns at the mercy of the publishing industry, or demographics, or new technologies spinning out of control.  In a 2007 interview, Maass insists that “99% of success is in the manuscript.  Everything else flows from that.”  Not that he claims that anything about it is easy.

One of Maass’ motives in writing these books was to explore why some novels, regardless of genre, are dramatically successful and others are not.  What are the qualities of those stories we come back to read and reread?  The ones we can’t wait to share with our friends?

I actually prefer the Breakout Novel Workbook, since it breaks the humongous task of creating “cut above” fiction into manageable chunks. Here is one from the second part of that interview, an exercise he presents at his fiction seminars, which are clearly not for beginners, but for those who actually have a manuscript in hand and want to take it to “the next level:”

Maass: The absolutely essential exercise that everyone should do, with every novel, is to toss the manuscript pages in the air and collect them again in random order. (The pages must be randomized or this won’t work.) Next, go through the manuscript page-by-page and on each page find one way to add tension. Now, that sounds easy enough but most people are quickly stymied. That is because they do not truly understand what tension means. In dialogue, it means disagreement. In action, it means not physical business but the inner anxiety of the point-of-view character. In exposition, it means ideas in conflict and emotions at war. Study your favorite novelists. If they make you read every word, even while turning pages rapidly, it is because they are deploying tension in a thousand ways to keep you constantly wondering what’s going to happen. Tension all the time is the secret of best selling fiction, regardless of style, genre or category. If it sells big, it’s got tension on every page.

One page at a time – the same way any writing is going to happen.  I got hooked on the Workbook in the first exercise, which starts with the importance of a character we can identify with and care about.  From Winnie the Pooh on, the books in my life that have mattered have all had living characters that shaped my imagination and personality. How does that come about?

Who are your heroes? What are their special qualities? How can your own fictional characters manifest those qualities? These are the first exercises in the workbook, and…hey, I can do that!

For anyone writing fiction, in any genre, I seriously recommend that you take a look at both of these books.

Of High-Concepts and Strange Attractors

I get a lot from reading and listening to screenwriters.  Today, while skimming some of the links posted below, I happened upon, Wordplay, the site for Scheherazade Productions, the company of screenwriters/producers, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio.

The heart of the site, according to the Intro page, is the Columns tab, a growing collection of essays where Elliott and Rossio share some of what they learned during the five years it took them to earn their first paycheck as screenwriters.  I was hooked at the start of Column 01, A Foot in the Door.

Somewhere in my own efforts, I stumbled upon a stunningly simple and vital concept: before setting pen to paper (or fingers to keys), I should be able to describe my story in a single sentence. Trial and error (error meaning tens of thousands of words of meandering prose) has made it an article of faith.

In his essay, Terry Rossio brings the concept alive in graphic detail as “The Warner Bros. Hallway Test:”

As a screenwriter, your choice of film premise is your calling card. Not your witty dialog, not your clever descriptions. Not your knowledge of structure and subplot and subtext.  The very first decision you make as a writer — ‘what is my film about?’ — will define your creative instincts in the eyes of the industry.

Rossio asks us to imagine a busy producer and director stopping by an office where a first reader is 40 pages into our screenplay. “What’s it about?” they ask.  What will the reader say?  What brief reply would catch and hold a director’s attention?

Once I heard a screenwriter try to describe, “High Concept,” which he claimed was a necessary ingredient for a story these days. Like most of the audience, I didn’t quite get what he was talking about. In Column 02, Rossio says that as a matter of fact, a story that can be summed up in a sentence is High Concept, but for him, that does not convey the special mojo that lifts a story above its peers. He “stole” a phrase from the mathematics of fractals: Strange Attractor.

I know this sounds a bit silly, but bear with me. Put ‘strange’ (meaning ‘unique’) and ‘attractor’ (from ‘attractive,’ meaning ‘compelling’) together and you get ‘strange attractor,’ or ‘something unique that is also compelling.’

Which would be just another, forgettable, “yeah, yeah,” bit of advice, if the author didn’t go on to give some examples:

“A group of ex-psychic investigators start a commercial ghost extermination business in New York City.”

“A defense attorney falls in love with her client. As the trial progresses, she doesn’t know if she’s sleeping with an innocent man, or a murderer.”

It begins to make sense. What is unique is not ghost stories, or love stories, or murder mysteries, per se, but the unexpected or quirky slants that were central to these movies. I remember coming across this “high concept” description of The DaVinci Code online some time ago – so simple yet so forceful I remember it without even trying:  A late night murder in the Louve leads to the discovery of a secret the Vatican has tried to suppress for two-thousand years.”

When he starts to outline specific qualities these strange attractor stories seem to share, Rossio begins with this image:

It’s as if thousands of people in Hollywood are combing the beach for that next great film idea, magnifying glasses out, checking every facet on every tiny grain of sand they come across. And then somebody points at a big, beautiful conch shell laying right out in the bright sun and says, “Hey, let’s make that!” You look at that big glorious pink and white crustacean and can’t believe you missed it.

If there were a magic formula, it wouldn’t be magic for very long. There are, however, some fifty essays on this site that promise to offer a lot of ideas and food for contemplation about the special qualities that can make a story come alive.

A Novel Planning Method

There seem to be two general approaches to plotting a novel. When I was younger, my efforts consistently ran aground because I tried to fit myself into the outlining and pre-planning camp.

When I first learned to trust imagination and revel in the lets-see-what-happens-next process, I finished a 90,000 word draft in seven months of evenings and weekends. The good news is, I’d found my natural way of working – the bad news is it took me seven months to see the gaping plot flaws an outliner could have flushed out in a couple of weeks.

I undertook a study of plot and learned about the three act structure, the key plotpoints, and various other fundamental concepts.  What I still didn’t have was a method of planning that didn’t inhibit imagination, the way an armature supports a ceramic sculpture but doesn’t inhibit expression.

I found something very useful online, Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake Method,” a literary brainstorming practice  that takes its name from the simple to complex process of designing a snowflake fractal:

Ingermanson begins by suggesting a one-sentence synopsis of the entire story – something that may seem impossible at first, but which I now believe is absolutely necessary.  The process clicked into place for me when I saw, on another web site, the following example offered for  The DaVinci Code: A late night murder in the Louvre leads to the discovery of a secret the Vatican has tried to suppress for 2000 years. Very high-level like that.

Ingermanson then suggests growing this story summary to a paragraph and then a page, in the spirit of discovering what the story is really about.  If the villain isn’t bad enough or is too easily defeated, it’s worth knowing upfront rather than thousands of words later.

Once I have gone as far as I wish with the Snowflake Method, I’ve got a decent high level map of plot and perhaps my protagonist and villain, but for me, something is still missing – how do I find out what’s going to happen next?  How do I dream up new complications, discover and weigh alternative endings, without writing those thousands of practice words?

I’ve recently begun to explore something I saw a decade ago, the “storyboards” Peter Jackson and his team developed to map the scenes of The Lord of the Rings. This was part of the “making of” section of the DVD’s. I dug them out and watched again after recently reading Syd Fields’ excellent, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, which recommends using 3×5 cards to work out plot.


I find that either a quick sketch or a few words can sum up a scene in a graphic manner that appeals to imagination. I can carry a few cards in a shirt pocket and glance at them over a cup of coffee or mull them over while driving home.

Two Towers Storyboard

They do not need to be nearly this detailed, because we are not planning camera angles.  This could be summed up as:

After witnessing Frodo confront the Nazgul, Faramir releases Frodo, Sam, and Gollum to pursue their mission to Mordor, or simply, After Nazgul, Faramir lets them go.

I find that if I let the images play around in the background of my mind long enough, the next step will come, and often surprise me.  I fully expect this process to evolve and change, but for now, this is a huge step forward.