I never wrote a plan for THE GOOD SON.
I half-plotted THE LOST SISTER.
FATHER CONFESSOR was another half and half.
But what I found, when it came to redrafting it, was that a timeline was useful, a step by step guide to what needed to happen was essential.
I used to do it for short stories, so why not with novels which are longer, looser and more prone to accidents on the part of the author’s memory?
As I’m writing, I have pinned above my desk several bits of paper. One of them is a character chart – listing ages and relations between the eight central characters in the project. The other is a beat sheet.
Many years ago, back when Writer’s Digest was full of good information, I read the scriptwriting columns with a religious fervour. J Michael Straczynski’s talk about structure and construct was as good a primer – if not better than – most books about novel writing. In fact, to this day I still say that screenwriting and novel writing should have more in common than most people might imagine (especially if we’re to make any sense of the show don’t tell trope, something that screenwriters have no choice in).
One of the things that stuck with me was Straczynski talking about how he developed scripts for Murder She Wrote and how they adhered to a five act structure. He explained how he’d take a sheet of yellow paper, write down the five acts and then break them into beats so that he had the beats to hit each page of the script and built the script from there.
Now, for the life of me, I can never remember what each act in a five act structure should do, but what I do know is that I like to work in fives. When I deconstructed FATHER CONFESSOR, I found I was doing the same thing, albeit subconsciously, and broke the book down into five story beats (the acts). Each beat could then be broken down again into a series of sub-beats. And this helped me find the structure of the story.
What I realised was that I was working using a variation (or possibly a carbon copy) of JMS’s beat sheets.
When it came to working on a current project – one that I’ve been working on for years but have never been able to pin down – I threw out everything from old versions of it and started afresh with five story beats. They looked like this (no spoilers)
1 1. Introducing main characters and conflict
2 2. Character A messes up Character B’s plans
3 3. Character A and Character C are forced into alliance
4 4. Everybody messes up everybody else’s day
5. There’s a resolution and not many folks are left standing.
Okay, so that bears no resemblance to the real story, but let’s not worry about that. The 5 beats were just really basic strokes that I wanted to get into the narrative. I then needed to break them down further.
2. 1. Introducing main characters and conflict.
1.1 Character A is trying to get somewhere.
1.2 He meets character B
1.3 Character B professes a hate for character, whom Character A loves.
1.4 Character A swears that he will protect Character C from Character B
1.5 It transpires that Character C is already in danger from B
22. Character A messes up Character B’s plans
And so forth. I also changed the main wording of each act to be more specific. Now, I’m not sure how many beats JMS used per act but remember that he was writing for television and so had a set time to fill and had to account for advert breaks etc. But I did find that ending each act on a revelation or cliffhanger worked as well in novels as in television and also that the acts naturally spaced themselves as around equal every time.
Of course, being a novelist I’m not so bound by time of format restrictions as I would be on TV, so I could allow beats and acts to be of unequal length if I needed to, which I discovered was a great thing in the editing process where certain things had to be allowed to breath or broken down even further. But by using a variant of that five act television structure (I also include a teaser and an epilogue - - but note I never mark them as such because once you have the structure you can of course start to disguise it so that no one will realise it’s even there, and by the time you’re done no one should know you ever regimented your story in such a way). However, by starting from this five act structure, I have found a way of planning that feels comfortable, allows me to see where I’m going and yet still enables me to (depending on how closely I break down an act) let the novel breathe and take its own form. If you want proof of that, then should the next book ever be published, you should know that the last act is nothing like the way it was originally intended and bears no resemblance to what’s above my desk. And yet without what is pinned up there, I don’t think I’d ever be able to have finished. Or at the very least, when it came to rewriting, I’d have had to work longer, harder and lost more of my hair because I’d have to keep trying to remember the plot’s structure and impose than on the narrative while still keeping the writing fresh and exciting.
I have a feeling that now I’ve rediscovered the joy of beats I’ll be reusing them a lot more often. They’re not full plans, but they help me to structure a narrative and get a sense of its direction, which is sometimes about the most you can hope for unless you’re one of those people who plan out every scene in the Nth detail before even thinking about voice and the business of creating prose and drama.
Of course your mileage may vary and you may want to adapt things to your own ease (if at all), but this method works very well for me and I guess it helps me believe, even for a moment, that I’m actually living one of my earliest writing dreams, of writing screenplays for the small and big screens.