Plotting a Search for Structure

Plotting a Search for Structure

Ruth E. Walker

At my critique group last night, we did a bit of dissection on the plot of a member’s novel in progress. Sounds scary, doesn’t it?

Here’s a bit of background. One of our members has a great story for middle grade readers. It has lots of elements that the age group enjoys:

  • a relatable POV character with a problem to solve
  • some simmering tension with a member of the opposite sex
  • a science fiction backdrop that is fun and fantastical
  • a school full of goofy rules, and
  • a dastardly villain bent on stopping our POV character dead in his tracks

All the right ingredients. But the novel wasn’t quite working the way the writer hoped it would. So he continued to work on the story and recently sent us a revised synopsis.

Our role, as with all submissions, was to look at the synopsis, mark up the copy with questions and notes, and bring it to the session for discussion. Questions and detailed notes are important but the discussion in our critique group is widely considered the true gold of membership.

Our critique group collectively has some wide-ranging skill sets and expertise. This we all bring to the table. But a couple of us (not me!) are exceptional in the plot department. One, in particular, often brings visual aids, related reading and notes from research and workshops.

Last night, I suspect Christopher Vogler’s ears were burning. And the meeting room’s white board was a colourful palette of ideas and plot points.

How it worked for one writer:

Our two-hour session focused on reviewing our colleague’s current plot structure as outlined in his synopsis and getting to the heart of his story.

It was brilliant. Dividing the basic plot into three main acts and then placing the existing story into that structure allowed the writer to consider changes that simplified areas of the story. Some parts were more complex than they needed to be. At least one character needed to be shipped to the Island of Unwanted Characters.  And some goals needed to be adjusted.

The writer had some significant ah-ha! moments. He left the meeting with a renewed sense of where he wanted his story to go. What started out like a last-ditch revision became the groundwork for a new vision and plenty of possiblities.

And, as a side benefit, I found it all immensely helpful in looking at my own work in progress.

The basics of the Three-Act Structure:

Act I sets the stage, introduces the POV character with a problem(s) to overcome and the inciting incident.

Act II is the meat of the matter and has its own moment of crisis in the mid-point. As our colleague explained, “It’s like in the Wizard of Oz where they reach the Wizard, and Dorothy thinks he’ll send her home. But no. First they have to complete this impossible task: kill the Wicked Witch of the West.

So using Dorothy and Wizard, Act II is divided into two sections: Act II a (following the yellow brick road to see the Wizard) and Act II b (kill the witch before she kills Dorothy, Toto and her three companions)

And then, of course, Act III. This final act has the crushing disappointment of learning the wizard is not all-powerful after all, quickly followed by a joyful realization that everyone had what they needed all along, the journey home and most important, the POV character’s completed arc of understanding or change. (There’s no place like home…)

Can this approach work for you?

So, looking at your plot, are there areas in your story that you think could use a bit of tightening up? Could a three-act structure overview give you clues about needed changes? Or does it confirm that you have all the necessary ducks in a row? Good for you if that’s the case!

A word of caution. My critique group example is just a simplified version of one approach to looking at plot. Screenwriter and script consultant, Christopher Vogler, has a popular book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (which, strangely enough, had a cameo in our session yesterday.) Vogler’s 407-page book is only one of the many great resources for writers on structure and storytelling.

Have you struggled with structure? What did you do to help you get past the challenge of plotting? If you have suggestions, let us know what resources and approaches you recommend for other writers.

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2 thoughts on “Plotting a Search for Structure

  1. Great article, Ruth. Further to your mention of the strength of Christopher Vogler’s teachings, he’s coming to Toronto for a four-day intensive writing workshop May 11th to May 14th, 2017. He’ll be sharing the stage with New York agent, Donald Maass (Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction), and James Scott Bell (Plot & Structure and Write Your Novel from the Middle). These three each have their own unique approaches to writing and when you combine their strategies, it’s magic. I’m counting down the days.
    http://free-expressions.com/story-masters
    http://www.facebook.com/events/472602796270382/

    1. Thanks for sharing this! Having the Story Masters in the GTA is a great opportunity for writers. And Jenny, I think our readers would be interested in learning about your experience at the intensive workshop. Perhaps you’ll give us an update in a post late-May or early June?

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