It’s over a month since I published “Collision” and I have been busy thinking about what to write next. It will almost certainly be in the sci-fi genre and set in the current day or near future. It’s not that I don’t like space operas or dystopian future worlds; I just don’t think I can improve on what’s already out there. Like any author, I am looking for something that is new and fresh; or at least a new way of looking at an old idea. According to Christopher Booker (author of “The Seven Basic Plots”), there are only seven basic plots that underlie all our stories anyway.
At least eight ideas have emerged as possible storylines; but how do you choose which one is best? At the moment my ideas are little more than loglines about an interesting character and what happens to them. Clearly, I need to develop the ideas further. But how?
One way is the pantsing approach – just start writing some scenes and see where the characters take me. But with eight different story lines to test this would be a lot of effort. Then there’s plotting approach – mapping out a storyboard or outline before writing. But again it’s a lot of effort if I’m only going to choose one of the storylines. Any kind of planning therefore has to be restricted to a high-level view of the plot.
Of the two approaches, I always thought I fell into the plotting camp. When working on “Collision” I started by using forty or so cards to map out the scenes before I started. Each scene card was simply a one-liner description of the scene. It was a way of getting started and finding a sense of direction. But if I’m honest and compared the original cards I used with the final draft of the manuscript, you would hardly recognise that it was the same story. During the writing process, I changed some of the characters, their relationships to each other and even some of the locations. What I found is that when I started drafting, some scenes just did not work, or new ideas would emerge, or I would find gaps in the storyline that had to be filled in. At times, it even felt like the characters themselves were behaving like belligerent actors and wanted to move in their own story direction.
Since publishing Collision, I have been looking for ways of improving my writing process, particularly the planning part. I don’t want to write long detailed outlines because I know I wouldn’t stick to them. I would be like a skier going off piste after the first scene. But some kind of high-level plan of the story’s structure would clearly help. So I have been looking to see what the gurus say about story structure on the internet. There’s no shortage of material about story structure, with each guru having his own spin on the number of acts, parts, plot points or beats. Most are based on screen writing structures around the hero’s mythic journey and while they differ in terminology, they all seem to recognise the same basic plot points.
One of the best books I’ve read recently on the subject is Larry Brooks’ “Story engineering”, which I would recommend to any newbie author. Brooks uses a four-part structure with nine milestones. The four part structure is very similar to a simple three-act structure, but with the middle act split at the midpoint. Thus, there are three major plot points (or turning points) at the end of the first act, at the middle of the second act, and at the end of the second act. The other milestones are: the opening scene, the hooking moment and the inciting incident, which occur which occur in the first act; the final resolution scene that occurs in the final act; and two pinch points, which occur midway through the first part and second part of the middle act. The hooking moment is an early scene that captures the readers’ interest. The inciting event is the event that changes the hero’s world forever. And the pinch points are scenes where the antagonistic forces show their strength.
Brooks is by no means the only one to advocate a four-part structure or to use similar milestones, but he argues the case with such evangelic zeal that he is well worth the read. There are also approaches that have a lot more than nine milestones, or which break down the part structure into smaller units called sequences (groups of scenes) or beats.
Will any of these approaches help with the planning of my next novel? I really don’t know. Sometimes, to find out, you just have to try and see what works.
As I have freely admitted, I am a bit of technophobe and this is only my second blog. In future, I don’t expect to blog more frequently than monthly – I would rather use the time to write. But I would be delighted to hear from anyone that has experienced the same writing problems and whether they have found any better solutions