A combined crash course in plot formula
The times they are a-changin’. Besides being on a new beach every couple days (Hello from the Oaxacan coast!), some creative and professional changes have come up. I started a legal proofreading course early this month to learn to help court reporters improve transcripts. I’m only a few units and modules in, and I will save any larger thoughts on proofreading and the course for later. But I’m incredibly optimistic for the potential opportunities of (1) gaining a marketable skill, (2) starting a freelance business, (3) working remotely from anywhere in the world, and (4) freeing up some working hours to pursue other interests, especially writing.
Mid-September Worldbuilding Update
In my first writing post, I laid out my first three “branches” on the path to NaNoWriMo. They are (1) worldbuild, (2) write twelve short stories, and (3) participate in and win NaNoWriMo. These contain sub-tasks and all three have definite deadlines. For instance, I want to complete the bulk of worldbuilding by 1 November so I can focus on the second part of story writing. I don’t think I’ll have every detail in my world worked out but I’m okay with that.
I started with individual mind maps of each society I was working on. I created child nodes for different aspects of a society: culture, society and hierarchy, government, religion, education, economy, languages, location, population, technology, army, and clothing. Am I forgetting anything? I uploaded a mind map in my first worldbuilding post featuring MindNode but it was difficult to see.
So, how am I doing? Eh. I think for my first time, I’m in good shape. I have the look and feel of the world I want to create very clear in my mind; pre-industrial West African coastline, islands, forests, and plains with people, djinn, horses, guns, family politics, war, pirates, the dead, adventure, and magic. Something that could pass for a slightly off-balance reality but of course fictitious. From June to August, I was stuck.
I’m still looking for the uglier qualities of some of my favorite societies and civilizations. Kaitlin Hillerich on Ink and Quills wrote about adding flaws into worldbuilding:
When I wrote my first fantasy story, I created a perfect world. There was no poverty, no slavery, no hungry children, women were equal to men, the streets were clean of filth, and for all I knew there weren’t any prisons. All of the kingdoms got along and no one had enemies. All of the kings and lords were fair and just except for the “evil” king and my “evil” villain who wanted to take over.
She also has a great list of types of flaws that writers can work into their stories or worlds. For my own world, I know slavery, class division, gender bias, religious strife, refugees, and cannibalism will all play a significant role in my world.
I think I’ve realized how much fun the planning and preparation stage of creating a place. What does this society do for funerals? How did this community get here? What happens when they visit a different land’s borders during a war? It would be totally possible for me to get stuck in the worldbuilding stage. I still have about 45 days to leisurely work on the worldbuilding and I’m enjoying it immensely.
Before, I thought the best writing practice would be multiple short stories with a monthly deadline. Again, this part of mi camino de NaNoWriMo would last a year, just in time to jump into November 2018. Over the last few months on the road in Mexico however, I’ve realize that other things must take priority over free time writing on my iPad. Fact is, there are some days when it’s not going to be possible to write.
So why not cut it in half? By reducing the number of stories to six and expanding the word count from 10,000 to 20,000—25,000 words, this second part could include six (marketable?) novellas rather than twelve practice stories. This could be more difficult in practice, but I’m curious and excited to have more room to see my characters, settings, and stories grow.
So each month, I aim to finish a fantasy novella written over two two-week periods, sandwiched between weeks for planning and outlining and weeks for editing, revising, and publishing. This puts a Monday to Friday word count goal anywhere from 1,000—1,250 words. Sound complicated? Should I just maybe shut up and write? Maybe, but the analytical, data-loving side of my brain loves plans and schedules. Is there anyone else like this? Feel free to comment down below.
“Would You Like Some Help?”
Now that some of parameters have been reworked, it’s the time I had been dreading; start brainstorming story topics. Starting off, I had a few very large themes that preoccupied various societies; agriculture for one, authoritarianism for another, etc. This isn’t helpful. One place might be more agricultural and another might be more authoritarian but stories inside those places are what we’re after. So I went searching for some theory that wasn’t Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces at almost 500 pages.
This lead to me to:
- Eva Deverell‘s fantastic website for writing inspiration and plot planning through a DuckDuckGo search on novellas
- Dan Harmon’s Story Circle
Reading these two pieces together was a bit of a wake up call. Firstly, hey, that’s right! I need a story! I can’t just describe djinn and horses and dead ancestors all day. I need living, breathing characters to do things. Secondly, Deverell and Harmon are saying pretty much the same thing. This seems to be a legit plot formula. Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
Eva Deverell’s One Page Novel Plot Formula
I love what Eva Deverell says in her post How to Write A Novella:
Novellas are sometimes compared to films, and I think the comparison is an apt one. If we assume that 15,000 words takes approximately an hour to read, then a 30,000-word novella can be read in about as much time as it takes to watch a film. Hence, a novella usually covers a similar number of scenes and events. A novel is too large a structure to visualise all at once, but films and novellas are more manageable.
In Mauritania, we watched a lot of films. I don’t know storycraft, but I do know films. Deverell points out that the novella form doesn’t allow the writer to go off on tangents or worldbuild. So if novellas can be tricky to worldbuild, can you imagine trying that in a 10,000 short story? While I want to worldbuild in my novellas, I have six of them that I can work with.
The 8-Stage Plot Formula
Deverell teaches a course called The One Page Novel online. And these stages correspond roughly with the Hero’s Journey. And as we will see later, with Dan Harmon’s Story Circle as well.
What’s interesting about Deverell’s approach is she starts by working with the resolution stage first, goes back to status then places others out of linear order. [Emphasis mine]
- Resolution: The One Page Novel works by plotting out of order, so the first thing we do is decide who our character will be at the end of the story. To do this, we can simply select one or two “states”, such as: wealthy, fearless, loving, sociable, etc.
- Statis: The next step is to turn the character’s Resolution state into its opposite. This gives us their state at the start of the story, and allows us to create a strong character development arc. For example, a character who’s wealthy at the end of the novella would begin poor, a character who is fearless would start out scared, etc. The Stasis will show the character in their ordinary, everyday life, exhibiting these states.
The other thing I like is she is pretty clear about word counts and 1 scene = 1 plot point:
If we take 1,000 words as a rough estimate for a scene, then a novella or 25,000 words will require only 25 scenes or plot points.
It never occurred to me to think of writing with scenes, even though theatre and film rely on this so heavily. This gives me even more parameters to work in. After a few months, I can loosen these. But for now, these guidelines are a life-preserver, with which I can survive with my inevitable imposter syndrome in the vast ocean of writing blogs.
Anywhere in the low 20,000s for word count would be a win for me, but 25,000 would be great. The structure is better fleshed out when she shows how many scenes to include for each stage. In her post, she has anywhere from 18 to 35 scenes, but for my 25 scene novella, it could look something like:
- Stasis: 1 scene
- Trigger: 2 scenes
- Quest: 12 scenes (with at least two try/fail cycles)
- Bolt: 2 scenes
- Shift: 2 scenes
- Defeat: 2 scenes
- Power: 2 scenes
- Resolution: 2 scenes
Deverell has two other great pieces of advice:
- Plot formulas are tools, not rules; use them to experiment!
- Don’t underestimate the amount of time it will take to redraft, edit, polish, and publish a novella.
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle
Dan Harmon is a writer and producer for shows like Community and Rick and Marty. Dan Harmon has a lot to say about the story circle. And it’s amazing.
The Story Circle is also an 8-stage plot formula. And this whole circle is a cycle of descent and return:
Get used to the idea that stories follow that pattern of descent and return, diving and emerging. Demystify it. See it everywhere. Realize that it’s hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern.
It’s beyond the scope of this post to do Harmon’s Story Circle justice. I read Deverell’s first and it was lean and succinct. I liked the way I could remember bits and apply them to my overall crazy writing structures. But Part IV, where Harmon describes The Juicy Details is meaty and awesome.
But before I go, I want to compare some of the language of these cycles. Deverell uses words like resolution and trigger. Harmon uses natural language, bare minimum English, and what I’m calling caveman English.
One Page Circle, Combined
||A character is in a zone of comfort,
||But they want something.
||Have a need,
||They enter an unfamiliar situation,
||You go somewhere,
||Adapt to it,
||Search for it,
||Get what they wanted,
||Pay a heavy price for it,
||Then return to their familiar situation
||And change things.
Among the Stones is mostly filled with aspirations. Sometimes I feel strange writing about things I haven’t done and completed. In some way, this can be inhibiting; I’m gaining some satisfaction of the thing without even doing the thing. But in other ways, I find it incredibly helpful for not only holding myself accountable because I have written something public but also giving me the space to brood over ideas and see them transform.
All that to say that I’m going to be very open about my processes when writing these novellas. After reading through both Deverell and Harmon’s pieces, I started jotting down some basic plot ideas. Just sentences right now, these are the first step in yet another plotting method, called The Snowflake Method. I thought of including this one into this post but this might be overkill. These are very rough, and I’m sure these will change over the next few weeks. I’d like to have a list always running of story ideas. Here are a few of them.
- A Janisi pirate or naval captain is shipwrecked next to a corrupt Belemusi warlords’ estate.
- A Galijasi woman discovers the cannibalistic people in the south.
- Dasasi nomads stumble onto a village ravaged by the dead.
- A reluctant Galijasi must travel a far distance, leaving behind his/her community he/she is bound to defend.
I’ll have more plot ideas and character development posts later. But I’m glad I was able to spend some time with Deverell and Harmon’s structures and I feel a lot more capable of setting out on the second part of my writing.