Story Structure: Pitching A Tent

Yes, ha ha, pitching a tent, titter, giggle snort, shut up.

Are you done? Hey! You in the back. That’s right. We’re waiting on you, Mister Chortles.

Okay then.

It’s time to give my novel a little structure.

I know I need it. I need it because the book has moving parts. Sure, I’m writing it for the characters, and as I noted I’ve already figured out (on accident) that most critical of questions (what’s this fucker about?), but even still, the plot — by which I mean the sequence of events — has to make sense. It has to have a good pace, too. I need it to trot along at a good clip. I need well-timed escalation. The story and the plot have a lot of moving parts. I need them to move together — think gears in a watch — rather than be independent widgets flailing and flopping in the sand like some kind of stranded Thalidomide baby.

Caution Tape

A little part of me suffers a burst of anxiety when applying structure.

It’s like a little cowering shadow, whimpering and blubbering.

I worry, am I giving away my thunder? I worry, won’t this be as much fun? I get a little tightened walnut in my gut, and my balls cinch up into my body, and a voice inside of me screams:

Life is short, just start writing!

And then I calm down. I remind myself, hey, writing isn’t about the writing. The actual writing? Half of the process. Builders don’t just build. Carpenters don’t just start hammering. Painters sketch. Architects have blueprints. Unless you’re BP, of course. Then you don’t need a plan! Drill, baby, drill!

See? I’m topical. Like an ointment.

Will it steal my thunder? That’s absurd. Whenever I find superstitious goblins like this one supping on me like a vampire bat, I crush it beneath my boot. They hurt. They don’t help.

Will it rob me of fun? Fuck no. Writing is still fun. Just last week I wrote a 3k short story for a game company, and I sketched it out real quick before writing. And even in writing those 3k words, I was surprised by little things, and found the characters saying things I never anticipated. You can put a structure in place, but the act of writing still contains a multitude of mysteries. You can’t plot a character’s voice. Or your own. You can’t plan for every contingency. Fun is not strung up and hanged from the ol’ hangin’ tree. Further, you know what? Writing isn’t always going to be fun anyway. Is that my metric? That it’s not fun? Pregnancy probably ain’t that goddamn fun either, but it’s worth it for the child, right? (I mean, unless you’re my parents. Then you’re saying to yourself, “We spent nine months in hell only to drop him on the driveway. Still got gravel in his brain. Stupid soft spot.”)

Blah blah blah, life is short, just start writing. Fuck that. Take a little time. Chill out. Life’s also too short to produce a mediocre piece of shit that’ll either waste my time or require so much rewriting I’ll be in rewrite jail for a life sentence. I’d rather invest a little extra time in the front end.

Also, I have to remind myself: the last two big projects were made infinitely better (and easier) when plotting. It seems hard now, but preparation cuts down on perspiration. Or some twee shit like that.

The one caution I’ll concede: you can outline forever. You can overbuild, I think. I’m not looking to beat this thing out minute-by-minute. What I do want to do is take a long hard look at…

Tentpoles and Landmarks

A tent can’t stand unless it has tentpoles. A journey is made easier when you have landmarks.

And those are the things I’m going to give the story.

So, I went through and said, “Okay, what events do I know need to happen?” Some of these are nicely crystallized in my mind, while others are ill-formed, but that’s okay. I just need to know that This Thing Happens. I need to know that (and I’m making shit up here), Codpiece Johnson must avenge his father, I know he needs to suffer an inciting incident that sets him on his path of wrath against the dread Dr. Hymenbreaker, I know that he needs to engage the Wheels of Klarn and start the Codpocalypse, and I know he needs to find the Breadfruit of Bombastiloquence to undo the wretched machine of vengeance he put into place (this is a tragedy, after all).

As an exercise, you can go through other stories and try to identify the tentpoles: in Empire Strikes Back, for instance, go ahead and beat out the Cloud City sequence. Meeting Lando, Capture by Darth, Luke senses danger, Luke bails on his Yoda Time, Confrontation with Vader, Darth Becomes Daddy, etc. Some elements of that sequence might not be tentpole: C-3PO getting all dicked up, for instance. That isn’t critical. It’s fun. But a tentpole? The scenes still play with or without that, and so that might be a good example of something the writers just… came up with. And that’s all good. Further, you can see by reading these tentpoles that they fail to encompass the magic of the story. That’s a good thing. That’s intentional. They don’t capture character moments or the deeper stories; it’s just a map to get you from start to finish and to keep the plot sharp and sensible.

As I jam one tentpole into the ground, others come to mind — a kind of cascading sense of consequence. “Oh, how’s Codpiece discover the Wheels of Klarn, anyway? Let’s put a thing in place where he finds the Ancient Books of Lemuria and maybe they show the way to finding the Wheels — except, that’s a bit passive, so maybe we want him to build the Wheels, instead. Oh! He does ride a bad-ass chopper, so maybe he builds the Wheels of Klarn from his own bike wheels. That makes him active: a dynamic element in his own downfall, a key element of tragedy’s sting.”

I actually put these tentpoles in a mind map, moving clockwise from right. It keeps it visual, and (for now) it limits it — it stops me from getting too crazy. Not that there’s anything wrong with getting crazy. Go apeshit. Spackle yourself with the feces of creation and run amok, hooting all the way!

The Arrangement of the Acts

Out of this, I start to see acts forming.

The actual novel I’m working on — which, oh, hell, let’s just give it the title I’m thinking so I don’t have to tip-toe around, I’m calling it The Devil’s Gunsmith, there, la-dee-da, now you know — comes up looking like it’ll benefit from five acts. (A reminder that I talk about structure and acts in an earlier post: The House That Structure Built.)

The fake Codpiece Johnson story (Doom Comes to Monkeytown) probably benefits from three acts, though. First act is what incites his rage (father dies at the hands of Dr. Hymenbreaker), second act is the escalation of his mission and sees him engage the Wheels of Klarn and begin the Codpocalypse, and the third act is the turn of the key and pivots us toward resolution whereupon Codpiece realizes the horror he has unleashed and must seek to once again re-cork the bottle (to borrow an image from Lost). The third act, in this way, turns and shows that Codpiece was his own enemy all along. The agent of his own undoing.

Loosely speaking, every act is an escalation, every act break is a pivot (a change of the story).

In The Devil’s Gunsmith, I need more room to play, and since it’ll have some noir sensibilities (that inverted pyramid whereupon the dreaded point of said pyramid presses down hard between the protagonist’s shoulderblades), I want the space and the time to reveal greater and deeper layers of crime and conspiracy. Hence, a five-act structure should do nicely.

Even still, remember that all stories effectively have:

Beginning.

Middle.

End.

Or:

Oh fuck, a problem.

Shit gets worse and worse until –

Protagonist fixes the problem.

Another advantage to act breaks — they give you measurable story pieces. Both for you as the writer and for the reader. Even if they’re not marked in the book (though they may very well be, either by chapter ends or by “BOOK TWO: MONKEYTOWN CODPOCALYPSE” or whatever), it’s nice to know that when you get to a certain point, you’re a part of the way done.

Which also figures into another reason for doing structure — you start to see the scope of the story. I know now that there’s no real good way to do this tale under 90,000 words. Probably 100k, even. I can pace it out. I can measure it. I can write to spec, which is the mark of a good professional writer.

The Journey Is Still The Journey

Repeat after me: this does not hamstring the journey.

It does not defeat the element of discovery.

When I plan a roadtrip with map or GPS, it tells me where to turn. And that’s it. It doesn’t tell me everything I’m going to see along the way. It doesn’t prepare me for detours. It fails to tell me if a more scenic route exists. I still have to work around unexpected obstacles. I still get to take a left turn even though the outline says, “Go Right,” and I can take the scenic route when I see it before me.

Writing — or, more appropriately, storytelling, because writing fails to encompass all that this is — is forever a journey. Our last script was literally outlined beat-by-beat in a very large treatment and beat sheet, and you know what? The writing of that script still yielded plenty of awesome surprises.

First, dialogue alone is something you don’t really plan. Second, we’d hit things that the outline failed to deal with, or things that it did deal with but suddenly a better way presented itself. The conditions on the battlefield are always different from what the Predator drones can show; you will always be surprised. You will always duck and move.

This is always a journey.

I just want a map, is all.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about endings, as Filamena demands. Because the end is a sticky wicket. And it’s where a lot of stories fuck up, you ask me.

15 comments

  • I should also make a quick note here that I’m planning a trip to San Francisco (BOUCHERCON) and then potentially taking a side-trip to Hawaii from there —

    And the “vacation planning” and “story planning” are really not that different.

    — c.

  • Ahhhhhh!…..I have been waiting breathlessly for this post. I know what works for you may not work for me, I have however used bits and pieces of different writers processes, tweeked and re-worked until it fits me. More than anything I like to know, I am not the only one out there workin it!

    I totally enjoy reading your posts in respect to writing and appreciate your hard work here on this site.

    Keep it up, morning coffee just ain’t the same without a good read of ‘Terribleminds.”

    • Thanks, Tina!

      Yes, absolutely, every writer must carve her own path.

      This is mine — at least, for now. I feel more comfortable putting pins in a map and charting my turns and pivots rather than feeling blind along a dark hallway.

      — c.

  • It’s good to know what works for you in terms of tentpoles. I find mine shifting here and there, and while they hold up the same points they might move from one chapter to another or change their slant slightly, going from something meant to be serious business to a scene that’s a bit more light-hearted.

    In pushing through the middle act to reach the end, how much hope do you get in realizing you’ve passed a certain landmark, or erected another tentpole? I’d like to compare notes on that, as I’m ambling in that direction myself. Any day now, since I’m back in the saddle, I feel like I’m going to hit a point where I will be able to do nothing but right until the work is done or I’m a quivering mass of mewling would-be novelist on the floor. Maybe both.

    • @Josh:

      How much hope? Well, I mean, it’s not like hope is quantifiable or anything. “I earned 17 Hope Points!” ;)

      I think they’re comforting to have, and work as nice… well, handholds for the climb. Each is a marker; how you feel about surpassing that marker is up to you, but me, it feels pretty good.

      — c.

  • Wow, you are like an ointment. But whether that’s because you’re topical or because you’re slightly greasy and leave an oily stain, I’m not sayin’.

    I just had to do this last week. Story planning, not leaving an oily stain. I do that all the time.

    There’s this idea of two kids of writers. The ones who plan and write to an outline and the ones who just write by the seat of their pants. I don’t think there’s actually any difference.

    Whether you’re doing it at the outline stage or doing it while you’re churning out deathless prose, at some point you’re still making shit up.

    If I’m just doing a 3K story I make it up as I go and edit later. There’s not much room for it to meander and any rambling is easier to find and burn out.

    But not doing it when I have 80-100K words is an exercise in pain. My first novel was like that. And it shows. I crammed too much in there, it was unfocused, went off on tangents. I had to cut something like 10K words just to get it to go in the right direction.

    And the great thing about a plan is that you don’t have to follow it if you don’t want to.

  • And on the subject of tentpoles. When I was a wee lad, as opposed to the muscle bound manly god of manliness you see before you now, I was a Boy Scout. Which is just shorthand for thuggish juvenile delinquent.

    Man, the things I learned in Boy Scouts. The knots have proved particularly useful.

    Anyway, we had these tents from 1962 or something that had a label on the side titled ERECTION INSTRUCTIONS.

    I’m sure you can imagine how a bunch of 12-year-olds took that.

    • @Stephen:

      ERECTION INSTRUCTIONS is now the name of my new novel. Forget THE DEVIL’S GUNSMITH.

      Oh, and yes — to a point, the two kinds of writers are really one kind. The kind that makes shit up. We all just make shit up. But, as you say,

      My first novel was like that. And it shows. I crammed too much in there, it was unfocused, went off on tangents. I had to cut something like 10K words just to get it to go in the right direction.

      That’s my experience as well. Roving too far astray leads me to this same befuzzled path.

      — c.

  • Yeah!

    I have tentpoles and instructions on where each should go. Sometimes I still get lost in the fabric between, though.

    Regardless, there’s a tent being built before me. It doesn’t matter if it leans to the left, it’s how I use it.

    Wait. What?

  • I do what I call tinker toy drawings (circled beats with lines connecting) to help me see the whole picture and how the cog teeth mesh. It’s pacing that I’m now trying to tackle. Thanks for the thoughts and, late entry on the blog topic front: Thoughts on Pacing.

    K

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