Plotter or Pantser? That is the question the Do Some Damage crew has been discussing over the last week or so. I'm mostly a plotter--that is, I do my most efficient work when I outline a project before I get to the actual writing. But sometimes I wonder whether it's my best work. Am I somehow stifling myself by plotting a story in detail before it's even written?
I don't spend much time worrying about that, however. As Jay said in yesterday's post, whatever works. And for me, plotting works. Pantsing--well, it's useful if I just want to sit down and wander through a potential story, but it inevitably leads to writers block when I realize I have no idea where it's going and I've spent the last month writing 40 thousand words, 38 thousand of which might need to be scrapped.
When I plot, I generally use the three-act screenwriting structure, because I have a bachelor's degree in screenwriting and this method works for me. This is more or less the basic outline I used to write my latest mystery, Mistress of Lies. I usually try to fill in as many of these "blanks" as possible before I start writing the novel.
|Screenshot of my outline for current WIP|
Act One: 20k words
Begin Set Up
Inciting Incident (happens around 5k) - In Mistress of Lies, the inciting incident is a young girl who claims that Isabel Wilde's brother, Adam, was murdered instead of dying of the plague as Isabel had always thought.
Theme Stated or Central Question - The theme is stated by Isabel's brother, Lucian. He says, "Life is for the living, Isabel. Let the dead rest."
Continue Set Up (5 - 15k)
Catalyst/Stakes are raised (around 15k)
Debate (15-20k) - Should Isabel investigate her brother's death or leave well enough alone?
Act One Climax/Break into Act Two (around 20k)
Act Two A (20 - 40k)
In screenwriting, this act is called "Fun and Games" or "the promise of the premise." In a mystery novel, it's the investigation into the murder.
While I do plot it, it's a little less defined than Act One. Basically, I plot out what I think are the logical steps in the investigation, pausing around 22k to introduce the B story and raising the stakes (usually a subtle attack on the hero) around 26k.
At about 30k and leading into the midpoint, I do what Alex Sokoloff calls the "Parade of Suspects." The hero re-visits in some way each of the potential suspects we have. It could be an interview, a date, a confrontation--whatever is appropriate to the character(s) and story.
Midpoint Climax/Break into Act Two B (40k) - Usually, the midpoint climax will take the story in a dramatically different direction. It's often called a "reversal."
Act Two B (40 - 60k)
Continue Fun & Games (or in this case the murder investigation) - Often this will entail a re-calibration in response to whatever happened in the midpoint
Continue B story
Bad Guys Close In/Loss of Key Allies
Attack on Hero (Stakes are raised) (50k)
Dark Night of the Soul/All is Lost - That moment when your hero has lost all hope and doesn't know where to turn. He or she is tempted to give up.
Act Two Climax/Break into Act Three - In a mystery, this can be the revelation of who the murderer really is.
Act Three (60-80k)
The final battle - This can play out in a few ways. Sometimes it starts a "ticking clock."
Final image - A new normal has emerged.
I know, I know. It's a lot of detail. But my historical mysteries have been consistently praised for their good pacing, so I stand by it. And I really haven't addressed all of the elements that make up a good story. This post is simply a starting place for writing a mystery novel using the three-act screenwriting structure. Your milage, as they say, may vary.