The Wikimedia Commons Image of the Day for September 22, 2017.
This image was selected as picture of the day on Wikimedia Commons for . It was captioned as follows:
The Wikimedia Commons Image of the Day for September 22, 2017.
This image was selected as picture of the day on Wikimedia Commons for . It was captioned as follows:
In this series on the construction of the novel, we have discussed creating a strong opening act, and a powerful, electrifying middle. So, let’s talk about the all-important fourth quarter of the story arc—the final act.
At this point, the enemy’s plans are in place. Our protagonists have met the enemy and survived the encounter, but now they know they may not prevail.
If your work is not speculative fiction or fantasy, perhaps they’ve suffered a terrible personal setback.
Regardless of the genre, at the outset of the fourth quarter, the protagonists are at their lowest point both physically and emotionally. From the midpoint crisis forward through the third quarter, major events have funneled the players down the path to the final conflict. Now, they are scrambling, working against time and perhaps, with fewer resources than the antagonist.
In these chapters leading up to the conclusion, the protagonists have been pressed to the breaking point. Now they are at the end of their journey. They must rediscover their courage, find a reason to continue the fight, resolve the loose ends, and appear at the final showdown ready to do battle.
If you were not careful in the setting up the events that form the middle of the narrative, the story could fall apart here. Listen to your beta readers’ comments: even in your third draft, you may have to insert new scenes into the existing narrative to drive the action to the final conflict.
If your editor asks you to write new scenes to get a flat story arc back on track, and you agree it’s needed, your task is to blend the new material into the existing story.
This is most important: any event that does not drive the plot to the end is a distraction. All side quests are being wrapped up at this point so don’t introduce any new plot threads. Emotions are key–of course for the characters, but also for the reader.
The resolution should be final, with no loose threads. Cliffhanger endings aggravate readers who don’t want to wait a year for the rest of the story, so even if your book is the middle volume of a series, give the reader some reward for their faithfulness, and resolve most of the subplots.
The middle is comprised of two acts joined by a major plot point, the midpoint event. Following the inciting incident is the second act, comprised of reaction to the inciting incident, and action, and more reactions, all of which leads to more trouble, rising to a severe crisis. All the action should relate directly to the core trouble, the quest.
At the midpoint, the protagonist and friends are in grave difficulty and are struggling. The midpoint of the story arc is the turning point, the place where there is no going back.
Consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit: At the midpoint, Bilbo is committed to seeing the Dwarves regain their home, and Smaug is routed, but at great cost. Now, he only sees disaster ahead of them, if Thorin continues down the moral path he has chosen. Bilbo has been changing, evolving in to a strong and moral character, but now he shows his true courage, by hiding the Arkenstone. Then he takes matters into his own hands to head off the impending war. Bilbo tries to ransom the Arkenstone, but Thorin refuses to see reason. He banishes Bilbo, and the battle is inevitable.
This arc is the same in every good, well-plotted novel: everything starts relatively well, but events soon push the protagonist out of his comfortable life and into danger. This peril can be physical, or emotional–after all, many things rock our world but don’t threaten our physical safety. Either way, the threat and looming disaster must be shown. At first, emotions are high, and the situation sometimes chaotic, but the protagonist believes he had a grip on it.
The Midpoint is the place where the already-high emotions really intensify, and the action does too. Toward the end of this section, the protagonist suffers doubt, fear they may not have what it takes, and their quest won’t be fulfilled. From this point on, the forces driving the plot are a train on a downhill run, picking up speed, and there is no stopping it or turning back now. The characters continue to be put to the test, and the subplots kick into gear.
Within the overall story arc, there are scenes, each of which propels the plot forward, moving the protagonist and antagonist further along the story arc to the final showdown. Each scene is a small arc of action that illuminates the motives of the characters, allows the reader to learn things as the protagonist does, and offers clues regarding things the characters don’t know that will affect the plot.
As I mentioned in the previous post on the opening act, those clues are foreshadowing. Through the first half of the book, subtle foreshadowing is important, as it piques the reader’s interest, and makes them want to know how the book will end.
At the midpoint, another serious incident occurs, launching the third act and setting them back even further. Now the protagonist and allies are aware that they may not achieve their objectives after all. Bad things have happened, and the protagonists have to get creative and work hard to acquire or accomplish their desired goals. They must overcome their own doubts and make themselves stronger.
Just when the characters have recovered from the midpoint crisis, another crisis occurs, the event that launches the final act.
Someone may die. But be aware, random action, blood and gore, or sex inserted for shock value or just to liven things up have no place in a well-crafted novel. Blood and sex do have their place in some of the best stories I have read, and they were watershed moments in protagonists’ lives. I want to make this extremely clear: If those events don’t somehow move the story forward, change the protagonist profoundly, or affect their view of the world, you have wasted the reader’s time.
The middle of the story is also where we get to know the antagonist and learn what the enemy knows that the protagonists do not. We discover his/her motives and what they may be capable of.
By the final quarter of the story, the protagonists should be getting their acts together. They are finding ways to resolve the conflict and are ready to commence the all-important, final act, the moment where they will embark on the final battle to achieve their goal. They will face their enemy and either win or lose.
I carry my coffee in a Starbucks cup
To the silver minivan,
A kid-hauler, a family bus,
An old lady’s junk hauling van.
I carry my coffee in the copper colored cup
And hit the road again.
The smoothness of the new highway
Matching grayness of the sky
The scent of coffee in my cup
Feeding birds take wing and fly.
My coffee and the Starbucks cup
Passing cows and llamas by.
My copper colored Starbucks cup
Hurtling south, or north I go.
Grandma’s on the road again
Get in the van, let’s go.
Coffee, cows, birds, and fog
She can’t be stopped, you know.
Copper Starbucks Cup © 2017 Connie J. Jasperson
image: Copper Starbucks Cup © 2017 Connie J. Jasperson (author’s own photo)
Every story begins with the opening act, where the characters are introduced, and the scene is set. This is where the author establishes the tone of what is to follow. The intended impact of the book can and should be established in the first pages. In this chapter, we want to:
The best stories then kick into gear with the occurrence of the “inciting incident,” which is the first plot point.
Novels are not unlike a gothic cathedral–they are created of small arcs supporting other arcs, combining to create an intricate structure that rises ever higher. Because the strength of the story arc depends on the foundation you lay in the first quarter of the book, it’s crucial that you introduce a story-worthy problem in those pages, a test that will propel the protagonist to the middle of the book. This event isn’t the main event, but it gives the reader a taste of what’s in store for them.
This is the hook. The author raises a question and sets the protagonist on the trail of the answer. In finding that answer, the protagonist is thrown into the action.
My favorite books open with a minor conflict, evolving to a series of ever greater problems, working up to the first pinch point, the place where the characters are set on the path to their destiny.
The inciting incident is where the protagonists first realize they’re blocked from achieving the desired goal. They must find a way around it, and that leads to another crisis scene. The story arc is comprised of scenes, each of which propels the plot forward, moving the protagonist and antagonist toward the final showdown.
Open with a strong scene, an arc of action that
The clues you offer at the beginning are foreshadowing. Through the first half of the book, foreshadowing is important, as it piques the reader’s interest, and makes them want to know how the book will end.
In the opening, focus on the protagonist and introducing their problem. Subplots should be introduced after the inciting incident has taken place. If you introduce them too soon, they can distract the reader, making for a haphazard story arc. In my opinion, side quests work best if they are presented once the tone of the book and the main crisis has been established. Good subplots are excellent ways of introducing the emotional part of the story.
Even if you open the story by dropping the character into the middle of an event, you will need to have a pivotal event at the 1/4 mark that completely rocks his/her world. The event that changes everything is what launches the story.
Following the inciting incident is the second act: more action occurs which leads to more trouble, rising to a severe crisis. For the protagonist, personal weaknesses are exposed, offering the opportunity for growth. At the midpoint, the protagonist and friends are in grave difficulty and are struggling.
Or, if they aren’t, they should be—after all, the struggle is the story. How long do you plan the book to be? Take that word count and divide it by 4—place your first major event at the ¼ mark. The following two quarters are the middle, and if you have set your plot up right, the middle should fall into place like dominoes.
This last weekend I attended the Southwest Washington Writers Conference. I was also privileged to attend a class called Creating Plots for Page Turners, given by the keynote speaker, Robert Dugoni.
I say privileged, for this reason. Robert Dugoni is a bestselling author of thrillers, My Sister’s Grave being the book that caught my attention several years ago. Dugoni understands what makes a gripping story.
As I sat in the class, it became clear to me that attention to writing craft is integral to his work, but he also sees it from a slightly different angle. While he covered many things which I will discuss in my next blog post, several things pertain to recent posts of mine, regarding the first draft.
Bob asked a question I found intriguing: “What is your purpose as an author?” There were several different replies. He said, “Your characters must entertain the reader. Never stop entertaining.”
That was my thought, exactly. So how do we entertain our reader? What should we avoid?
One of the main pitfalls of the first draft is the info dump. These boring stretches of background info are mostly for you, the author, and are meant to set the scene in your mind. You know the rules, and don’t want them in the finished piece, but they slip into your work in insidious ways:
Points 3, 4, and 5 were concepts I consider in my own work, but never really thought about and hadn’t articulated them. They are critical and do bear mentioning here.
A question Dugoni asked was one I have often considered and discussed here. “What is a story?” The answers varied, but the one he wanted, and with which I agreed, is the story is the journey.
Frequently, stalled creativity is the result of the author having lost sight of the character’s journey, both the physical and the emotional journey.
Dugoni offered a solution for when that is the case: Ask yourself, “What is the character’s physical journey/quest?” You must ensure each character has a journey, a quest, but Dugoni adds third aspect–a dream. That idea that the journey/quest is also a dream that must be fulfilled resonated with me.
Then, consider the emotional journey. Why do these people continue in the face of great challenges? Is it love, anger, fear, duty, greed, honor, jealousy, or some deeper emotion that drives them?
Find that emotion, and you will find your character’s motivation.
Then ask yourself what happens if they don’t succeed? What are the consequences of failure?
Something important is at stake, or there is no story. Once you discover what it is and how it affects the characters’ emotions, the story will come together.
Classes like this are why I attend writer’s conferences. Robert Dugoni, Scott Driscoll, Cat Rambo—these people have the knowledge I need, and they are wonderful, accessible people who freely discuss all aspects of the craft in seminars, frequently at conferences I can afford and which are near me.
The companionship and support of other authors has been invaluable to me, and I have made every effort to repay their many kindnesses by supporting them in their endeavors. The friends I have made through this career are as dear to me as any I grew up with, and that circle widens with every conference I attend.
You may meet writers who are local to your area, and they will know of good writing groups near your home. They will also know about resources you can draw on, reference books you may not have heard of. If you are serious about the craft, you will seek out the company of other writers.
Find a conference in your area, and see what turns up. You may find yourself learning from a master.
Robert Dugoni’s most recent book, Close to Home launched Sept 5th and has garnered well over 65 customer reviews on Amazon in the first week alone and maintains a 4.5 star rating.
New York Times bestselling author Robert Dugoni’s acclaimed series continues as Tracy Crosswhite is thrown headlong into the path of a killer conspiracy.
While investigating the hit-and-run death of a young boy, Seattle homicide detective Tracy Crosswhite makes a startling discovery: the suspect is an active-duty serviceman at a local naval base. After a key piece of case evidence goes missing, he is cleared of charges in a military court. But Tracy knows she can’t turn her back on this kind of injustice.
When she uncovers the driver’s ties to a rash of recent heroin overdoses in the city, she realizes that this isn’t just a case of the military protecting its own. It runs much deeper than that, and the accused wasn’t acting alone. For Tracy, it’s all hitting very close to home.
As Tracy moves closer to uncovering the truth behind this insidious conspiracy, she’s putting herself in harm’s way. And the only people she can rely on to make it out alive might be those she can no longer trust.
Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed New York Times, #1 Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon Best Selling Author of The Tracy Crosswhite series, My Sister’s Grave, Her Final Breath, In the Clearing, and The Trapped Girl. The Crosswhite Series has sold more than 2,000,000 books and My Sister’s Grave has been optioned for television series development. He is also the author of the best-selling David Sloane series, The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, Murder One, and The Conviction. He is also the author of the stand-alone novels The 7th Canon, a 2017 finalist for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for best novel, The Cyanide Canary, A Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and several short stories. Robert is the recipient of the Nancy Pearl Award for Fiction, and the Friends of Mystery, Spotted Owl Award for the best novel in the Pacific Northwest. He is a two time finalist for the International Thriller Writers award and the Mystery Writers of America Award for best novel. His David Sloane novels have twice been nominated for the Harper Lee Award for legal fiction. His books are sold worldwide in more than 25 countries and have been translated into more than two dozen languages including French, German, Italian and Spanish.
Today’s image is brought to you by Wikimedia Commons. It is an image of the San Gabriel Mountains in California rising out of the smoggy haze, taken by Doc Searls. In my mind it evokes a fairytale place, a somewhere full of possibilities. A writing prompt? Perhaps, but mostly it is a peaceful image, designed to rest the mind, a visual place where ideas are born.
S.GabrielHaze, by Doc Searls from Santa Barbara, USA – 2007_06_24_iah-lax_71.JPG, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7737446
September first has come to stay,
Summer’s moving on,
Cold and chill the break of day,
But we still greet the dawn.
Webs are hung with mist and dew,
Sparkling on the lawn,
I drink coffee on the porch with you,
And watch the rushing throng.
Foggy Autumn Morning Sunrise, © Connie J. Jasperson 2017, All Rights Reserved
Foggy Autumn Morning (sunrise) Arto J [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons