The End of Act 1

Most people have at least heard of the three act structure. It originated from the stage, but can also be used by writers and screenwriters to analyse their stories. Of course, unlike a play, a book or movie is not broken down into discrete units, and so the act structure is invisible from the reader’s/audience’s perspective.

Under a three act framework, a story can be broken down into a beginning (Act 1), a middle (Act 2), and an ending (Act 3). The convention is that Acts 1 and 3 are normally about 25% of the story length; whereas Act 2, the source of most the story conflict in the story, will amount to about 50% of the story length. On this basis, Act 1 of a 200+ page novel will normally amount to about 50+ pages.

Not all writers and screenwriters necessary accept that a three Act structure is a helpful structure for analysing story. But most agree on the content or beat structure that occurs at the beginning of a story. As I am getting close to reaching this point in drafting my current novel I thought it might be helpful to look at some of the things that a writer needs to include in those first 50+ pages.

The opening scene. This is an important scene. It has to capture the reader’s attention, introduce the main character in his normal environment and reveal something about his character (for example a weakness or personal desire) before the story begins. Usually the scene will include a hook within the first ten pages that grabs the reader’s attention and encourages them to read on.

The setup scenes. These scenes expand on the initial scene to reveal the main character’s world. They may also introduce other important characters that will have an effect on the story, such as the antagonist, side-kick and love interest (if applicable). The set up scenes may also reveal the source of the problem/opportunity that will force the main character to act on at some point. And the set up scenes may well hint at the theme of the story. Theme here is not the subject matter, but is the more about the moral that pervades the story. Not all stories necessarily have a theme.

The inciting event/catalyst. This is the event that brings the problem/opportunity to the main character’s attention and changes their life forever. Not all stories necessarily have an inciting event. The problem/opportunity may have always been there and it’s the main character’s perspective to that problem/opportunity that changes so that he/she needs to respond to it.

The debate. Sometimes the main character doesn’t know how to respond to the problem/opportunity and needs the help of a side kick or some trusted guardian to help him/her to decide to act.

Turning point one. This is the point where the main character resolves to act in response to the problem or opportunity. He/she may have a plan (although not necessarily the right one), or he/she may be floundering; but there is no way of going back.

By the end of Act 1, the main character should have moved out of his/her comfort zone into a new situation that either threatens him/her or challenges him/her in some way. The reader will understand what the story is all about (the story question) and hopefully should be rooting for the main character.

Outline and outliners

How do you measure the progress you’re making on writing a book? Do you think in terms of the word-count you’ve written or the number of scenes you’ve completed? The answer possibly lies in the type of writer you are. If you’re an organic writer (or ‘pantser’) that believes that any form of outlining is too restrictive and waste of time, you’ll probably focus entirely on word count. If you’re a writer that uses some kind of scene outline then you may prefer the latter. But what is an outline?

In my school/college/university days outlining an essay was simple. You made a list of points you needed to cover in the essay, and then you started writing the essay, crossing off the points as you went along. You could write a novel the same way, although I suspect it would take a lot more time to come up with the list of points. In practice, most writers use notebooks or files to collate their notes and research and it may take a considerable period of time before the author is ready to commence. But some writers will go further and organise their research and information into some form of story structure or scene outline that will form the skeleton for their novel. But even here, practices vary enormously.

One of my favourite books on writing is James V. Smith Jr’s ‘The writers little helper’. Smith covers a whole range of topics on writing, but when it comes to outlining he advocates you don’t bother. He argues that outlines can become a mission in themselves without adding to the creative aspects of writing. Instead he suggest a Ten-Scene Tool to sketch in the ten most important scenes (or master scenes) in your novel. These include, the opening scene, the point of no return complication, other pivotal complications, the climax and the ending. His rationale is that the Ten-Scene Tool forces you to simplify your central story line. This is not to say that the other scenes you will have to write are not important; but that they are less pivotal and are there to set up the master scenes and provide texture. In my mind, this is still an outline albeit at a helicopter level of detail.

Contrast this approach with that of Karen S Weisner’s in ‘First draft if 30 days’, where she sets out a six stage structured approach to produce a scene by scene outline of 50 pages or so. Far from believing an outline restricts creative development, Weisner believes that the brainstorming process continues throughout the writing process and that it is easier to modify an outline of fifty pages than it is to modify a manuscript of 200–400 pages. Considering she is an award winning novelist of more than twenty books, the system clearly works for her. Whether you agree with producing this level of detail or not (which for me came as a bit of a shock) you will find her approach fascinating. She uses some twenty different worksheets, which are set out in the Appendix C to her book. Even if you are the most ardent pantser writer in the world there is probably something you can take away from this book. She has also written ‘From first draft to Finished Novel’, which picks up from where her earlier book finished. Both books in my view contain a great deal of good practical advice for a newbie novelist.

For the current novel I am working on I have an outline currently consisting of 46 planned scenes, which are summarised on scene cards in my Scrivener file. The amount of detail on each card is relatively high level: a heading and couple of sentences of explanation. As I continue to write, I expect the number of scenes will increase, because I have a tendency to split scenes into smaller units, and new scenes will be necessary as transitional scenes are incorporated and more detail is fleshed out. On the spectrum of outlining, I probably currently fit somewhere between the two extremes of Smith and Weisner.

Which approach is right for you? Only you can tell, but for me it is worth experimenting with to find out.

Getting off to a good start

So you’ve developed your story idea, done some outlining or story planning and now you’re ready to start writing your novel. You stare at the screen and the curser blinks back at you. You think it’s mocking you. You know that first sentence has to be brilliant prose; it has to capture the reader’s imagination and make them want to read on. You think of all those clever opening lines that famous authors have used and nothing seems to come into your head. Writer’s block? Forget it. Any sentence will do; you just need to get going. You will no doubt edit that first sentence, that first paragraph, and that first scene a hundred times or more before you’re finished. Writing is all about re-writing and at this time all you need to do is get going on that first scene.

But do you know what your first scene should be? Ideally you should start in the middle of some action or something interesting. It shouldn’t be an information dump of the life history of your main character. It shouldn’t be a long prologue; readers don’t want to read prologues. It shouldn’t be about the weather; unless a weather incident is the focus of the storyline. And you shouldn’t spend long passages describing characters with chiselled jawlines or soft silky hair. Keep the descriptions to a minimum and get into the storyline as quickly as you can. Don’t try and explain too much; instead create questions in the reader’s mind. For example: why is this mad cop, with an axe chasing a woman though a closed theme park? You can reveal the answers as the story unfolds and, of course, at the same time create more questions.

In the case of my own novel, Collision, I struggled to find which scene should be first. Initially, the first scene was the night beach scene, when a man jogging on the beach sees a UFO which appears to crash further up the beach. But there are two important scenes, which precede the events on the beach: the scene at mission control, where a US General witnesses the collision between a spy-plane an a UFO; and the escape scene in the future, where the heroine witnesses a murder and escapes in a time-craft. All the scenes could potentially have been the opening scene, since they all had lots of action and movement. But I wanted to hold back the details of the escape scene for as long as I could to keep the reader guessing about the origins of the UFO. In the end I chose to start with the General witnessing the collision even though neither of the main characters were in the scene (Chapter 1); the beach scene became scene 2 (Chapter 2); and the escape scene was dealt with in a flash back at scene 7 (Chapter 4).

The point I am making is that you need think about the best point to open your story. It has to be interesting. And it’s not necessary the most obvious from a chronological viewpoint.

If you want to read the scenes, you can read them for free by clicking on the button to “Look inside the book” at Amazon Kindle.

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The Style Rules of Writing Fiction

After spending so much of my business career writing reports, books and letters in a plain style of English, writing fiction for the first time was quite a challenge for me. If you’re contemplating writing your own novel for the first time, you might be struggling with the same kind of issues. Below I’ve set out some of the principal style rules of writing fiction. They’re not exactly rules; as Barbossa said in Pirates of the Caribbean said, they’re “more what you’d call guidelines”. But if you don’t understand the guidelines, and why they are there, you won’t get very far.

Point of view.

When writing a novel, a writer needs to choose a point of view and normally stick to it. I touched on point of view in my last blog. It’s probably one of the main differences between writing fiction and non fiction. A fiction writer has a choice to narrate a story from perspective of a number of different points of view, and the choice that he/she makes will have a profound effect on the way the story is told. The key question is ‘who is telling the story?’ Is it written from the perspective of the author themselves as an objective narrator, or is the story being told from the perspective of one or more main characters in the story? Where the story is written in the first person (I/we) it will always be told through the eyes of the main character narrating the story. This is useful when the author wants to reveal the inner dialogue and feelings of the main character and build empathy for the character; but it is restrictive in that the writer cannot reveal what the main character does not see or experience themselves. Therefore, the main character has to be present in every scene. When the story is written in the third person (he/she), it is still possible for the writer to reveal the thoughts and inner dialogue of the main character in a scene if that’s what the writer wants to do. This is called limited third party point of view, or sometimes third party subjective point of view . Each scene could have a different point of view character depending on who was the main character in that scene. But the scene could also be written from the perspective of some detached objective observer without looking intot the heads of any of the characters. This latter objective third party point of view is a kind of cinematic viewpoint where the reader is given a cold objective view of characters and the reader has to make their own mind up about what the characters might be thinking. Lastly, there is an omniscient third party point of view, less common among fiction today, where the point of view expressed is some invisible god-like all-knowing narrator who can see into the minds of all the characters and comment on their behaviour. No particular point of view is necessary right or wrong. But the choice the writer makes will have a profound effect on the way the story is told.

Dialogue.

A writer should use concise and effective dialogue. Good dialogue should have the purpose of advancing the story, developing character, or creating dramatic tension; it shouldn’t be used as an information dump. Good dialogue has been described as conversational English, but with the boring parts removed. The normal convention is to start each piece of new dialogue as a new paragraph, so it is obvious when someone new is speaking. Dialogue tags (he/she said) should be used to distinguish who is speaking. Avoid descriptive tags such as ‘shrieked’, ‘shouted’, ‘exclaimed’, ‘groaned’, ‘whimpered’ and other similar sounding words. A simple tag such as ‘said’ will normally suffice. The reason is that even when ‘said’ is repeated, it is relatively invisible to the reader’s eye. Other speech tags tend to stand out too much, and duplicate what should be obvious from the dialogue. Where a paragraph starts with a character action (or beat) (e.g. ‘He turned towards her.’), it is presumed the following dialogue relates to the same character and a dialogue tag is not necessary. Good use of beats is therefore a way reducing the number of speech tags. Also if there are only two characters present and it is obvious which character is peaking a speech tag is unnecessary.

Contractions.

In fiction contractions such as shouldn’t, it’s, I’ll etc are all quite acceptable. In the business world it would be unusual to see them at all. Similar, certain grammatical constructions normally avoided in business English can be relaxed in writing fiction, when it is seems natural to do so. So starting a sentence with a conjunction such as and or but or ending a sentence with a preposition such as on is acceptable. But don’t over do it.

Adverbs

Good fiction writers tend to minimise the use of adverbs (words generally ending –ly). Why? Because there is usually a stronger verb that is more effective. For example, ‘The man ran quickly’ could be written ‘The man sprinted, or darted’. Also when used as part of speech tags, adverbs can overstate the obvious. For example: ‘Well so what if I did!’ he shouted loudly. He said would suffice; the adverb loudly adds nothing to the meaning.

Punctuation

Good punctuation and good grammar are much the same in fiction and non-fiction. But don’t be tempted to use punctuation for dramatic effect. Exclamation marks should be used sparingly and multiple exclamation marks should never be used.
That’s the end of my list of style ‘rules’ that are different from business English. I am sure there are more. Feel free to comment.