Today we’re winding down my summer blogpost series, The Word-Pond. We’ve explored the myriad aspects of ‘depth,’ the wide inferential layer of Story. Depth isn’t easy to categorize, nor can we point to one aspect and say, “Get this right, and you’ve got a story with depth.”
I’ve described Story as a pond filled with words and discussed the three layers:
Surface: The Literal Layer; the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer. Characters live, and events happen. These are reflected in the surface of the story. The ways in which we play with the surface layer are by choosing either Realism or Surrealism, or a blend of the two.
Middle: The Inferential Layer, where Inference and Implication come into play. This is an area of unknown quantity filled with cause and effect: the reasons why these lives are portrayed, and why events happened. This is where emotions muddy the waters.
Bottom: The Interpretive Layer. This level is not only foundational; it contains and shapes the story:
The words in this pond behave like the waters of a pond in nature. While close scrutiny reveals that the waters of a pond are separated into layers by temperature, salinity, microbial life, or by the sheer weight and pressure of the volume of water, the overall structure is one large, important thing: a hole filled with water.
Without water, a pond is a depression in the ground filled with possibilities only.
In our word pond, the one large thing containing our words is “story.” So now we want to form these layers into a coherent, meaningful story. We need a container for our words, the hole in the ground for the story to flow into.
This container is the story arc.
Many people say they have a book in them, one they’d love to write. They begin, get a chapter or so into it, and lose the thread. They can’t see how to get the story from the beginning, to the crisis, to the resolution.
This is where the skills I’ve developed through my years of participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has paid off. If you want to write a novel, it’s best to sit down and get that first draft out of you while the story is fresh in your mind. You’ll spend a year or more rewriting it, but if you don’t get the original ideas down while they’re fresh, you’ll lose them.
A story begins with an idea for a character. That character usually comes to me along with a problem. This is the seed from which the story grows.
I sit down and draft a story plan in four acts. First, I tell myself how I believe the story will go. This only takes half an hour and gives me finite plot points to write to. Once I have the four acts, I know where the turning points are, and what should happen at each. This ensures there is an arc to both the overall story and to the characters’ growth.
I’m going to use the original plot idea for a work in progress as my example. My WIP is a short story, 5000 words in length, but you can plot any length of story.
The story: Our Protagonist is a courier, transporting a valuable artifact. This artifact brings her to the attention of the Antagonist who intends to seize it, no matter the cost.
You must know what the surface of the Story looks like before you can explore the depths. A good way to discover what you are writing is to “think out loud.” Divide the story into four acts:
Act 1: the beginning: We show the setting, the protagonist, and the opening situation.
- Setting: a village near a crossroads.
- The weather is unseasonably cold.
- The protagonist is carrying a jewel reputed to enable a mage to control the weather.
- The protagonist must travel alone, as her partner was killed.
- Unbeknownst to her, a traitor in her employer’s court has designs on the artifact. By possessing it, the Antagonist will have the power to usurp the throne.
- She is wary, knowing the danger of traveling alone. She conceals the artifact by sewing it inside her shirt.
Act 2: First plot point: The inciting incident.
- The Antagonist’s hired thugs capture her.
- She is thrown into prison.
- A fellow prisoner has overheard that her partner was murdered to ensure she would be traveling alone.
- This fellow prisoner believes he has a plan to enable their escape.
- The protagonist isn’t sure she should trust him but refuses to let the artifact fall into the Antagonist’s hands.
Act 3.: Mid-point: We show their dire condition and how they deal with it.
- Seeing no other way, our Protagonist agrees to the Sidekick’s plan.
- He is on the verge of managing an escape but needs help with one last thing.
- By working together for several days, they manage to complete the escape route.
- Timing the rotation of their guards is critical to the success of their plan.
- Just as they are about to make their escape, the Antagonist makes a surprise visit to the dungeon and roughs up our Protagonist. He batters her physically and mentally, attempting to force her to tell him the whereabouts of the jewel, but she manages to keep her secret. When he leaves, her shirt is torn, but the jewel is still safe.
Act 4: Resolution:
- They must wait for another rotation of the guards, giving the Protagonist a chance to rest. She is injured but can still do what she must.
- The two make their escape but find themselves emerging near the kennels.
- The Sidekick gives the watchdogs the food he had saved for their journey, distracting the dogs and allowing them to escape over the walls.
- The Protagonist and the Sidekick manage to keep ahead of their pursuers and arrive back at court, where she delivers the artifact and reveals the identity of the traitor.
- The Employer is grateful, and the Protagonist and her Sidekick are all set for another adventure—perhaps a novel.
You have an idea for a story. Take a moment to analyze and plan what needs to be said by what point in the story arc. This method works for me because I’m a linear thinker.
If you know the length of a book or story you intend to write, you know how many words each act should be. Once you have the map, you can get to the nitty-gritty of turning that far-fetched tale of woe into a good story.
As you write each event and connect the dots, the plot will evolve and change. You begin to explore the deeper aspects of the story. Emotions, both expressed and unexpressed, secrets withheld, truths discovered—all these details that emerge as you write will shape how the characters react to each other. In turn, these interactions will alter the shape of the larger story.
This is why we never really know how a story will go, even if we begin with a plan. The plan serves to keep us on track with length and to ensure the action doesn’t stall.
Draft a short plan for a 50,000 word manuscript. 50,000 words is the industry standard for a novel. Write 1,667 words a day that connect those events together, and in thirty days you will have written a 50,000 word first draft of your novel.
To see more of what National Novel Writing Month is all about, go to: www.nanowrimo.org
I am dragon_fangirl there. Look me up and become a writing buddy!
3 responses to “Structure of the Word-Pond #amwriting”
So useful and timely!
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It’s September now, so it time to think ahead for November’s big dance!
I believe 50k is the minimum to be called a novel. I’ve read on agents’ posts that 75k to 85k is ideal for a debut novel or one for YA.
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