Sunday, June 01, 2008

Writing Craft--Structure and Plotting

When I get a story idea the first thing I do is write it down. They happen a lot and I might forget a really good one. Safely, etched onto the hard drive, the story seed waits until I have time to develop the concept.

When the time comes to work on it, the second thing I do with my bright and shiny new story is write up a synopsis. The synopsis starts with the hook, sketches the main characters, and delineates their inner conflict as well as the outer conflict.

Go ahead and groan. I know you want to. But, this is what works for me. If I can lay out the story in a few pages, and still be thrilled with it, then it’s worth more time.

If it’s still a go then I’ll draft the GMC statements for every major character, inner and outer and play with those until they really dovetail together.

Then it’s time for character bios, checklist, or interview--whatever vehicle appeals to me at the moment for getting to know the cast of characters better. I don’t need to know everything about them before crafting the manuscript. But, I do need to know enough to be confident they’re worth their page space. In short, worth the work it will take to bring them from sketchy stick figures to multi-dimensional, engaging, and fully-fleshed people.

At this point, I know what the story conflict is, who the characters are, what makes them tick and what they want. I’m ready to plot.

The story starts in the protagonist’s world, with their current problem. Giving the reader only enough information to keep her reading, we lead her into the special world of the story. The first act, roughly a quarter of the book, is expended setting up the story, introducing characters and their troubles, and building the connection between the reader and the characters.

In the opening of the second act, a story twist propels the protagonist into the adventure. Plunging him into the first test of his character. This first trial by fire sets the tone for the next quarter of the book, as the tension rises with the stakes. At the book’s mid-point another twist sends the story in an unexpected direction. While the tension continues to mount, the action is falling as the protagonist struggles against seemingly insurmountable odds. During this third quarter of the story, a false victory or false defeat is traditional. Either event must be celebrated or mourned appropriately, giving the reader a respite from the unrelenting tension.

During all of the protagonist’s striving, his character is forged stronger and purer. Now it’s time for the climax, the resolution of the story’s outer conflict, this time the hero really does defeat the villain decisively.

Act three opens with the cast is celebrating the hero’s glorious victory. But, a bittersweet sadness tinges the festivities, because the inner conflict has not been resolved. In romance this generally translates to, although the hero defeated the villain, he and the heroine are no longer together because the inner conflict is not resolved. Time for the final twist, which makes them realize they belong together. As they pledge their mutual love the story ends.

Just for fun, here’s an example plot, each paragraph is the capsule version of a scene. In this instance, I skipped all the intial steps--the characters remain one-dimensional, the GMC's only a vague notion, and the snappy synopsis unwritten. But, the story structure even unpolished, works for me.

Act One

Chapter One--opening in the real world

Jake Coldstone walked into Nowheresville on Saturday morning. Normally he would have skirted the small town, preferring to keep his own counsel. Since Durango had thrown a shoe a few miles back. He had no choice. He needed a blacksmith. Keeping his hat low over his eyes, he headed straight for the smithy’s forge.

Tess Trueheart struggled to load the heavy feed sacks into her wagon. Thankful she wasn’t hampered by hoopskirts. Though, wearing breeches made her even more of an outcast than raising sheep had. Straightening her tired back, she reminded herself things could be a lot worse, at least the feed and seed still sold to her on credit.

Miles Studly kept an eagle eye on the stranger leading his horse to Tom’s place. Watching the newcomer helped distract him from gawking at Tess’s backside like an excited greenhorn. He sure as hell didn’t trust himself to help her load her supplies. Besides, giving Tess a hand would be a slap in the face to his father and every other cattle rancher in Montana.

Chapter two--invitation to adventure

Miles continued to study the stranger uneasily, there was something familiar about him. Snagging Tom junior’s collar, he gave him the gelding’s reins and strode over to the blacksmith’s for a closer look. Before he got there the stranger moved, disappearing.

Jake spotted Miles moving toward him. He had no interest in a confrontation with his half-brother so he simply walked away. There was no love lost between them, but he still hated the idea of killing family and Miles was just stiff necked enough to force a fight.

Tess shoved the last bag of feed into the wagon, resettled her hat, unhitched her team, and climbed onto the buckboard. A slight breeze soothed her as she, happy to be heading home. Slowing at the sharp corner before the bridge she passed under the tall maples that always seemed vaguely sinister, a loud thump made her over her shoulder. The most dangerous dark eyes she’d ever seen gazed at her warily. “Obliged if you’d keep driving a mite further ma’am.” With no further explanation, the lanky stranger folded himself under the old blanket she kept behind the seat.

Chapter three--inciting incident

Miles searched the small town, determined to find the stranger and make sure he kept moving, if it hadn’t been for the fine piece of horseflesh he’d left at Tom’s place, he would’ve let him go. But no sane man would leave his horse behind. Then he noticed Tess’s wagon was gone. If he’d so much as bruised her little finger the bastard would pay for it.

Tess drove across the bridge because stopping on a blind corner would be foolish. Her hands stayed calm managing the team. She had no time for hysterics or mysterious strangers. When the road widened enough to allow for safe passing, she brought the wagon to a stop. Snatching the pistol from under the seat, she cocked the weapon, and then trained it on the lump under the old brown blanket. “Come out nice and slow, Mister. Any funny stuff and you’ll have an extra hole in your head.”

Jake poked his head out from under the blanket. The woman driving the wagon was pointing a gun at his head. Carefully, he folded her blanket. “Reckon, I’ll be getting’ off here.” A shot whistled past his left ear. The woman hadn’t moved. Miles moved toward them at a slow walk, his horse shying and his recently fired Colt aimed right at his chest.

Act Two

Chapter four--propelled into the adventure

Jake drew and fired in one smooth motion, hitting Mile’s gun hand. His half-brother’s horse reared, dumping his wounded rider onto the dusty trail. So much for just moseying through town. “Pardon me, ma’am.” He tipped his hat, snagged a coil of rope, and then jumped to the ground. He walked back to where Miles was struggling to his feet, holding his injured hand. “You bastard!” Miles spat. “True enough, though it’s hardly Christian to go rubbin’ it in. You want to do this the easy way or the hard way,” Jake asked evenly. Miles swung at him. Boy always did have more guts than brains. Jake leaned back, intending to let the kid wear himself out, but then he saw how badly twisted Mile’s ankle was. Jake clipped him neatly on the chin. Then carried him over to a shady spot beside the road before hog-tying him. While he was tending the hot-headed Miles, the woman and the wagon took off in a cloud of dust.

Miles woke with his wrists bound behind his back. His hand throbbed and his ankle ached like the devil. Jake had left him his pocket knife but it took him ages to get it out and even longer to open the damn thing. By the time he cut through the rope binding his wrists, he was sweaty and so mad he couldn’t see straight. The fool gelding was grazing a few yards away. It took him every bit of control he could muster to coax the gelding into holding still. Three tries, before he managed to mount the stupid animal. When he finally made it back to town, Jake and his horse were long gone.

Tess made it back to the ranch without any more surprises, which was a very good thing because she hadn’t recovered from the afternoon’s excitement. When she’d held her gun on the stranger, she’d had the oddest feeling that he didn’t care whether she shot him or not. As she unloaded the wagon, Shep, one of her two sheepdogs, arrived, limping, and yet whining for her to follow him. Following the faithful dog, she found Ben, her younger brother unconscious along with half a dozen of her best ewes, which were either dead or dying. A lone horse and rider approached, Tess aimed her pistol at the intruder, determined to protect her brother. But the rider dismounted and gently placed Ben on his mount. “You leave him alone,” Tess demanded impotently. “He needs help,” the stranger who’d shot at Miles replied with way too much self-possession for her peace of mind. And then he rode toward the cabin.

Chapter five--test of character

Jake had planned to keep right on riding, but then he’d seen the woman, who hadn’t shot him, running. He reckoned he owed her one, at least enough so that he had to check on her. He’d had some half-baked idea of revenge after his mother died. His quarrel wasn’t with his half-brother. Their father, Jefferson Studly needed to pay for his sins. But when he’d learned that Jefferson had suffered a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair, he had to re-think his plans. He’d be willing to be his last gold piece Jefferson was behind the woman’s troubles, which made him her new best friend.

Tess hurried back to the cabin. Ben’s wounds had been dressed and he was tucked into the lower bunk. The cabin was neat and orderly with no sign of the stranger. After assuring herself that Ben rested as comfortably as possible she drug herself back to the barn. She’s wound needed attention and the feed still needed to be unloaded. The wagon was empty, the horses rubbed down and stabled. She thought he’d simply ridden off but then she spotted the stallion. The stranger crooned softly to Shep as he cleaned the dog’s wound. And Tess’s heart softened.

Jake glanced up to find the woman staring at him with suspiciously bright eyes. The last thing he needed was for her to look at him like he was some kind of hero. Because he was going to use her to extract a real and lasting revenge. But, he wasn’t willing to tell her that either. So, he did the only thing he could think of to keep her from crying. He kissed her.

Chapter six--reward for heroics

Miles crept back at his father’s bidding to make sure the damn dog was dead too, but it had run off. Worse, the kid was gone. Tess must have come home and somehow managed to get her brother to the cabin. He kicked a rock, regretting the move when his injured ankle protested. He was supposed to fire her barn, but maybe he could talk to her, make her see sense. If she’d just give up the stupid sheep then he could protect her.

Shocked by the stranger’s kiss, Tess froze. Then the sensation of his soft lips brushing hers did something to her. The tender feelings of gratitude caught fire, scorching her very blood and bones. The kiss, which started out as a tender surprise, deepened into a branding of her soul as this man’s possession and nothing would ever be the same.

Jake had meant to stop her tears because he didn’t want to deal with her gratitude but when he kissed the woman something else happened. She tasted like pure seduction and innocence all rolled up into one perfect little body that fit him more perfectly than his skin. Then he smelled something burning.

Chapter seven--new worse disaster changes everything

When Miles saw Tess kissing Jake, something snapped. He wanted to make her pay. Because she’d reject his attentions. But, she welcomed his half-breed brother’s advances. The torch was lit and pitched into stables without a first thought let alone a second. Shame swamped him as he heard the horses’ screams. He began frantically pumping water.
Jake blasted out of the barn astride Durango and clutching Tess. Seeing Miles filling buckets was as good as a signed confession as far as he was concerned but Jake held his temper needing all the help he could get to save Tess’s horses.

Tess grabbed a bucket and ran for the barn, because she needed to fight the fire destroying the barn but Jake snatched her water dumping it on his blanket. And then ran into the inferno with the wet blanket his only protection.

Chapter eight--all appears lost

Miles watched as Jake emerged from the burning barn leading her team of horses and Tess ran to him, ignoring him and everything else. Even when he tried to do the right thing it backfired. He wanted Tess to see him as the answer to her prayers, but as usual Jake interfered screwing up everything. Right hand was still too injured to shoot, but Jake’s back was turned and he didn’t have to be fast, just accurate.

Tess, watched her dreams vanish into cinders and smoke. Thank god Jake and the horses were safe, but the hay loft and feed stores were a total loss. All she’d wanted to do was raise sheep as her family had done for generations, but the cattlemen hated her and would stop at nothing to drive her out of their country.

Jake wanted revenge for his mother’s broken heart, but he was sickened by the destruction of Tess’s hard work, and realized he was no better than Miles and Jefferson--maybe he hadn’t set fire to her barn or killed her sheep but he was using her for his own ends and that made him feel even sicker with self-loathing.

Chapter nine--climax resolution of outer problem

Tess whirled at the sound of the shotgun cocking. “Drop the gun and raise your arms,” Ben said. Stiffling a scream, she saw Miles was aiming at Jake’s back. She pulled and shot in one smooth motion as if some expert gunslinger had guided her hand. Miles crumbled and her own knees felt watery. Ben looked worse than she felt. When she glanced at Jake, he was still crouched but, his gun was out, which seemed strange. Then with a rush of relief and regret she realized he’d shot Miles too and they’d never know which one of them had killed him.

Stumbling with exhaustion, Jake helped Tess get Ben back in bed. “Mind if I bunk here tonight?” he asked, already sinking to the floor. Tess fetched a quilt and pillow both items were worn soft and smelled faintly of lavender, reminding him of Tess. As he drifted off to sleep, he promised himself he’d stay long enough to rebuild her barn and make sure Jefferson left her alone before he moved on.

The next few weeks were the happiest Tess had ever known. Jake was miracle worker and Ben strove to emulate his every move. The bank extended her a loan that had allowed her to replace the stock, equipment, and lost feed. The barn had been rebuilt and was a great deal nice than the old one. She kept waiting for Jake to tell her his intentions. But, as the days passed she realized he wasn’t shy, nor was it a lack of opportunity because she’d made several of those. With a sinking heart she began to worry that she’d read more into the kiss than he’d meant.

Act Three

Chapter ten--celebration of victory and breaking hearts

Jake packed his things and then slicked himself up for the barn dance Tess had organized. After Jefferson’s lowdown attack, the other ranchers had rallied around, supporting Tess--several of the local women had placed orders for wool that wouldn’t be available until next Spring. He hated to leave, because Tess’s courage and spirit had captured his heart, but he wasn’t cut out for settling down in one place and that’s what Tess needed. Besides he had nothing to offer a woman, at least not one like Tess.

Tess set the last of the pies on the window sill to cool and heated the water for a bath. She’d invited her friends and neighbors to a party and she was going to see it to it everyone had a good time, it was the least she could do considering how kind they’d all been. But she didn’t know if she could see Jake and not make a fool out of herself.

After the first hour at the party, Tess realized she’d wasted her time worrying about how she would act around Jake. He deliberately avoided her. She danced with her brother and several men, who’d been kind enough to ask. Jake didn’t volunteer to be one of her dance partners. Though, she’d seen him dance with several other women and it was eating a hole in her heart just watching him.

Chapter eleven--final twist resolves inner conflict

A decent man would thank Tess for her hospitality and tell her he was leaving. Jake had never kidded himself that he was a gentleman. But, now he was a coward because he was sneakin’ away in the middle of the night unable to face the love and hope in Tess’s eyes. He finished cinching his saddle on Durango when someone tapped his shoulder. He whirled around, gun drawn and got a fist in the eye. “That’s for breaking my sister’s heart.”

Tess stepped out into the cool night air, inside the barn the party was going strong but she needed a break from keeping a fake smile in place. Soft thuds and grunts came from the other side of the barn, curious she went to investigate. Ben was pounding on Jake, who was doing nothing to defend himself. “Stop that right this minute,” she yelled. And then she dashed between the two men furious with both of them.

One of Ben’s wild punches connected with Tess’s chin. Jake slammed a fist into the kids belly, Ben doubled over. He examined Tess, who had a dazed expression, and then began to pound on his chest. “Leave my brother alone.” She choked out while tears streamed down her cheeks. He wrapped his arms around her, “Shh, everything is going to be okay.”

Chapter twelve--return to the real world

“Nothing will ever be okay again,” she sobbed against his chest. Tess struggled against the iron bands keeping her tight against Jake’s chest because she didn’t want his comfort, and yet she longed for him. But since she didn’t want his pity she had to stop acting pathetic. She pushed away from him and this time he let her go. “I’ll take care of Ben. You can leave. There’s no reason for you to stay.” Then she looked at him, memorizing his face.

“Come with me,” Tess said briskly. She didn’t wait for his agreement, leading him to the well and then matter-of-factly ripping a strip of cloth from her best petticoat and wetting it with cold water. He stood there and let her torture him with her soft hands and sweet smell as she bathed his pummeled face with such tenderness his heart melted. He wasn’t good enough for her and he never would be, but if she wanted him he sure as hell wasn’t going to fight her over it. He had to make her stop hitting on him before she bruised herself. So he did the only thing that had ever worked with her. He kissed her.

This time Tess wasn’t letting him go without a fight and she had no intention of fighting fair. Because no man, who kissed her like that was ready to leave. When she finally let him catch his breath, they’d drawn quite a crowd. And the Reverend Smith-Daniels volunteered to perform the wedding ceremony. “That would be lovely,” Tess said firmly. Jake produced his grandmother’s wedding set from his saddlebags. While all their friends and neighbors watched Jake made Tess Mrs. Coldstone.

Kind of a pity that westerns aren’t popular at the moment--I enjoyed plotting this one.

For those familiar with the traditional story structure formats, this plot follows none of them precisely. I’ve adapted this particular plot from a range of craft works devoted to the subjects of plot and structure.

This is a simple story set in a familiar genre, adding more characters and more sub-plots could expand this basic outline into an epic novel or a series.


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