The old adage gives explicit instructions on how to eat an elephant: one bite at a time. Anne Lamont’s outstanding writing how-to book Bird by Bird follows the same line of reasoning. In fact, just about any book on the craft begs and pleads of the beginning novelist not to sit down and write a novel.
Your job, my easily-reduced-to-weeping friends, is to write scenes. Scenes are wonderful. Most are even shorter than short stories. If an infinite number of cats typed out scenes for an infinite number of years, know what you’d have? That’s right. A lot of profanity.
But I digress.
Even the most die-hard seat o’ the pants writer needs to reduce her writing to short chunks. Few of us fall into that category, though, even if we claim the title of “panster,” I dare any of you to show me a published book that was produced with no forethought, no notes outside the finished document, or no sketches on the back of your kid’s algebra homework (which he got a C on thanks to your easily distracted mind).
Before you begin your next best-seller, think of it in terms of a bunch of scenes. You should know, even if you dare not write it down less your artsy friends accuse you of “plotting,” what needs to happen at various points in the novel. If the average novel has 60 scenes (really, that’s all), you should know that there needs to be a beginning, an inciting incident, a first plot point, a middle, a second plot point, and an end. There’s a couple of pinch points thrown in there, in which you give the reader a glimpse of your antagonist or antagonistic forces, but we’ll stick with the basic structure for now.
So, you’ve got this awesome book that will never be given away for free on Amazon in your head. Right? Now don’t try to write it. Get the ideas for the scenes down first. It doesn’t have to be all sixty, but get those pillars in place ASAP!
Let’s go over them:
Inciting incident: This is not the turning point. This is R2D2 and C3PO landing in Luke’s garage. It may be the discovery of a body (in a mystery, it almost always is). It may be a collision between your hero and heroine at a busy intersection, where they exchange insurance information, threats, and perhaps a brief longing desire (she’ll look into his chocolate hooded eyes or something like that). Put it in the first ten pages, if not the first scene. Note: This is probably going to be a hook, but you can have multiple hooks, so that’s a different topic.
First plot point: Okay, this is the turning point. It should be about a quarter of the way through your book. This is where Luke discovers his Aunt and Uncle have reached a state of extra-crispy. Your protag cannot turn back. In a mystery, the previously discovered body has been investigated and the evidence points to the protag or someone he or she cares about. If your protag is a cop, that’s just his job (but give him something more to care about…the MO is identical to a killing he couldn’t solve three years ago, etc., etc.). If you’re going to spend weeks dwelling on a single scene, this is a good one. In our sixty scene book, this should be near scene 15. After the first plot point, your protag is “wandering” and looking for information and clues.
Midpoint: This is in the middle. Clever, huh? Your protag has collected a ton of vital information. As well as some red herrings. However, your reader is getting antsy. She’s flipping to the back to see how much more she has to read and deciding if a Castle rerun may be time better spent (I exaggerate, because you will fill the other scenes with plenty of tension, right?). But she wants more. So we give her, and maybe your protag, a peek behind the curtain. We see our chocolate-eyed hero visiting his comatose wife in the hospital. We catch a glimpse of our villain as he hops in the driver’s seat of his school bus. Like I said, your protag may or may not see this. It’s not enough to solve the mystery, but it will add tension to the second half of your book. After the mid-point, your hero is now on the hunt. Less info gathering, more action.
Second plot point: This is like the trade deadline in Major League Baseball. You can’t bring in any more players. No more clues. You’re 75% into the book, or scene 45. Your hero now has all the info he or she needs (and so does your reader). This is the “ah-ha” moment. The Death Star has a weakness, and it’s two meters across and you have to hit it while flying at mach 1000. It doesn’t get easy from here, but we have a final goal in sight. Like I said, no new characters. No new info. Just the chase. Hopefully, against overwhelming odds. Your hero knows where to find the bad guy. And it’s not pretty. Your lovers know their destiny is with each other, but she got tired of waiting and is on the launch pad for a two year mission to Mars (feel free to steal that idea). Got it?
Conclusion: Yes, you need to wrap this up. This is where pansters often find themselves in trouble. That’s why, on this one sheet of paper (or homework), you’ve established the pillars that will support every other scene in your novel. You must answer all the major story problems here. But since you just listed 99% of the story problems in a few critical scenes, this will be no problemo. Do not get lazy here. That’s why it’s a good idea to get the ending on paper before you get tired of writing this thing and move on to something simple, like house flipping in Detroit. Have your hero race against time to catch the villain in a crowded soccer stadium (did I mention the bomb in his backpack?). Have your chocolate-eyed loverboy bust through a NASA control room and leap atop the “Abort” switch (okay, don’t steal that one). Or just have him fight through New York traffic to race up the Empire State Building (without a line to wait in), and miss Meg Ryan…only to have her return because she left her umbrella. Your reader’s heart should be drumming wildly at this point. And if tears are shed…Home. Run.
See there? That’s 5 scenes. I bet you could pound out one per day. Then take day 6 and go over them to see if your plot works. Now we can fill in the other 55 scenes. The job of those is to lead in to and out of the 5 “pillar” scenes. How did your hero end up on NASA’s Baristas in Space Program? Take a few scenes to get her there. How did a Jedi, a smuggler, a Wookie, and a farm boy end up in the most powerful battle station the universe has ever seen? Why is your non-drinking detective hanging out in a bar every day, where he gets a hot tip from the waitress who secretly has a crush on him? The “in-between” scenes will get you there. Each scene has a mission of its own. And TENSION.
Let’s talk about the in-between scenes a bit more next time. How about you? Do you have those critical scenes in mind before you begin to write? Do you write them first, even if it’s just in a notebook?