I'm ecstatic to bring you the third installment of Story Structure, my mini-series all about keeping your developmental editor happy.
Over the years of working as a freelance editor, I've come to recognise common mistakes authors make. Most of the issues revolve around the structure of the story. Mistakes here quickly blossom into large errors - pacing, plot holes, character inconsistency, characters with a lack of agency, etc. The list is endless.
The aim of this series is to help you spot these mistakes in your work.
The reason many people outline is because it gives them something to follow when writing - a list of actions and reactions, causes and effects. But outlining a novel does not signify the end of major structural issues. You may still make mistakes (writing the inciting incident too early, or a lacking inciting incident are very common mistakes!), but hopefully the developmental editor you choose will work on these with you to create the best version of your story.
As the Story Circle was more structured than John Truby's method, so is the Beat Sheet more structured than the Story Circle. You may have noticed the rhythm with which I am releasing these posts: increasing in difficulty. Pansters may scoff at the Beat Sheet but the 7 steps Truby outlined might assist them in creating a freer outline (or they might use something like the headlight method). Plotters will probably push others out of the way in order to learn a new outlining method (I would!).
Jessica Brody struggled to hook a publisher in the early days of her writing career. She was downtrodden and exhausted. Then a friend handed her a copy of Blake Snyder's Save The Cat!. Who would have known that a few years later, after successfully publishing over ten books and running her own independent outlining workshop, she would recreate Blake Snyder's outlining method for novelists?
But she has! And you can buy it here!
Save The Cat! is a collection of 15 Beats (basically, plot points) but that's not all. This method also includes a few steps to help you get to know you MC.
Before the Beats, you need a character, an idea or a plot point. Something to get the story started. When I awoke from a spectacular dream about a paralysed woman floating in dark woods, I knew I had an idea for a story (which I later titled The Acro-Contessa). But when I first outlined this book, I had no idea where to start. I wrote all of my ideas in a series of notebooks and placed them in logical order. Sounds right, right? WRONG! The MC, Aaliyah, had no motivation, no real issues and no agency. She was a hollow character going through the motions. After outlining The Acro-Contessa around 7 times, I believe I may have figured her and her story out. (After 7 times...7...)
Once you have your character, give them a problem (an overarching flaw that the character will one day realise and fix in order to complete their character arc). This could be anything. Are they selfish? Are they meek? Are they easily provoked? Are they consistently happy as a defense mechanism? (and, ultimately, happy at the wrong times!)
Next, think about what your character wants. This will change through the story. The want is the goal they are pursuing. What do they think will fix their dire situation? (The situation brought about by their flaws!) Do they want to finish their school year with good grades so they can get into an international university? Do they want to ask out the girl they've admired for years? Do they want to find their mother's killer for vengeance?
Now you have their goal (and the flaw that stops them completing their goal), what is their need? What do they have to learn before they can succeed? This oftentimes goes hand-in-hand with their flaw. What do they need to learn so they can overcome their flaw?
Jessica Brody suggests choosing from the 10 universal lessons, as your reader will find them relatable: forgiveness, love, acceptance, faith, fear, trust, survival, selflessness, responsibility, and redemption.
Lastly, your character needs a "shard of glass", Brody describes this as,
It's a pscyhological wound that has been festrering beneath the surface of your hero for a long time. The skin has grown over it, leaving behind an unsightly scar that causes your hero to act the way they act and make the mistakes they do. (Brody, 2018)
Now you have your character/s and his/her/their flaw/s, want/s and need/s figured out, let's get into the Beats.
ACT 1 (Thesis World)
OPENING IMAGE (0-1%) - single-scene beat
To give your reader a satisfying character arc, your character has to start somewhere. You have to show them the character's flawed life. This scene/chapter is brief. Make sure you use it to the full advantage. What is your character doing to show their flawed life and how theit flaw is making everything difficult? In The Acro-Contessa, Aaliyah refuses to marry an heir to the throne of a foreign country so she does the worst thing she can think of: hang out in a riot with supernatural protesters. Is this illegal? No. But it is highly frowned upon because the supernatural protesters, Acrogenos, are feared by the general public. A soon-to-be Contessa should know better.
THEME STATED (5%)
Remember the flaw/s? Allow a secondary character to state what the character needs to do in order to overcome their flaw. This secondary character could be an acquantance, an enemy, or anyone the character won't listen to.
In order to find the theme of the book, ask yourself, how could x character become less flawed?
SETUP (1-10%) - multi-scene beat
This portion of your novel revolves around giving your reader a broader image of the world your character lives in. While the OPENING IMAGE is merely a glimpse into the character's life, the SETUP is an exploration of just who the character is and who they have around them. Continue the display of the character's flaws screwing everything up.
In this beat, show the reader what the character thinks will change their life.
...your reader is already getting the sense that if something doesn't happen soon to bring about that change, this hero is pretty much doomed (Brody, 2018)
This beat is devoted to the character ruining everything because of their flaw/s. Show them at work with their co-workers or boss; show them at home with their family; show them in public with their friends; show them with their enemies. Create a small list of scenarios to show the reader why the character must change.
CATALYST (10%) - single-scene beat
This is the forced change the character needs. They are reluctant to change on their own because they don't see their flaws (or don't seem them as flaws), so they need the CATALYST in order to create change. But this won't happen straight away. The character sees this incident as a nuisance that doesn't allow them to return to their comfortable world (they may not be comfortable in the world but they are used to it). They are plunged into the unknown.
Make sure the CATALYST is huge. If the character can return to their normal life, it wasn't big enough.
In The Acro-Contessa, Aaliyah's forced change is the point that she is injected by a man and hospitalised. Why can't she return to her normal life? Because she transforms into an Acrogenos and now the country is waiting for her to develop a supernatural ability. Without this incident, she would have carried on being flawed for the rest of her life.
DEBATE (10-20%) - multi-scene beat
This beat prepares the character for Act 2. As a reaction to the action in the last beat, the character wonders what they will do. What can they do? The character doesn't want to change, they want to return to the familiar, but it's just not doable. They may try and find a way to return.
Show the character in the same places and around the same people as SETUP. This will prove to the character that they cannot return to their old life.
So, what do they decide to do? What do they believe will fix the issue created by the CATALYST?
As a side note, this section isn't always relevant. The character may not have a choice as to what happens now. Instead, they will prepare for the journey ahead of them. This could be educating themselves, gathering supplies, training for the future, etc.
ACT 2 (Antithesis World)
BREAK INTO 2 (20%) - single-scene beat
The DEBATE is over and the character should think they know what to do to fix the issues caused by the CATALYST.
The character must choose to move forward to prove they have it in them to be the hero of their own story. Whatever question they asked themselves in DEBATE, this is the answer. They may still be moving towards their want but at least they are trying to fix their life. This is the point where they realise something needs to change (not themselves yet, they are still to learn the theme).
This beat comes with very strict instructions: this must be an obvious break from the thesis world to the antithesis world. This Act is all about turning the world of Act 1 upside-down.
B STORY (22%) - single-scene beat
Most of the people around the character up until this point were part of the A Story (the external story), this beat introduces the B Story (the internal story) character/s. One (or two!) of these special new people will help guide the character towards learning the theme. This could be a friend, love interest, mentor and even a nemisis.
According to Brody, successful B Story characters must, 1: represent the upside-down world of Act 2, and 2: guide the character toward the character's theme. (Brody 2018)
Don't let this limit you, some A Story characters could, in fact, be B Story characters as well. However, they seemed obselete in Act 1. This is where they shine. And, remember, they don't have to be best friends with the character, they could be the most irritating character in the entire book so long as they serve a purpose and lead the hero to the theme.
In this beat, Aaliyah, from The Acro-Contessa, meets the team of rebels for the first time. Prior to this she knew of this particular band of rebels but not by name or sight. They are invisible attackers. One in particular (who I'm excited for you to read about!).
FUN AND GAMES (20-50%) - multi-scene beat
This is not necessarily what it sounds like. The character may not experience literal fun and games here but this section is fun for the reader. Why? Because this beat is the promise of the premise (also used in the Three-Act Structure) - this might be the very reason your target audience became interested in your book.
Don't let the percentage amount scare you. This is the longest beat for a reason. Spanning the rest of Act 2, this beat is necessary for the exploration of the character's new world. As a reversal of the thesis world, FUN AND GAMES should show the reader how the world looks - the new people, the new places, the new creatures, etc., whatever is relevant to your genre.
This beat is pivotal for the rest of Act 2 - is it generally positive or generally negative? In My Own Dear Brother by Holy Muller, Ursula and Schosi experience a largely negative FUN AND GAMES. Death, fear and sickness surrounds them but they do have happy times too. Schosi makes friends in an unlikely place and Ursula enjoys the company of the people around her. This is what Brody calls a bouncing ball narrative. (Brody, 2018) While the character may experience a majority of negativity or positivity, they will have moments of the other.
MIDPOINT (50%) - single-scene beat
This is the middle of the novel - if it wasn't obvious by the beat name.
Depending on how you build FUN AND GAMES, this beat will either be a false-defeat or false-victory.
Three important things happen here:
If the character generally experienced negativity in FUN AND GAMES, this point will be a false defeat. This is where the character seems to have lost. What they wanted might not be within their grasp or they got what they wanted and found out it wasn't what they thought.
During the MIDPOINT, the stakes must heighten. Because of this, the character begins to let go what they want and moves more towards what they need.
...the Midpoint changes the direction of your story, making it (yet again!) harder for the hero to go back to who they were before (Brody, 2018)
BAD GUYS CLOSE IN (50-75%) - multi-scene beat
After experiencing the falsity in MIDPOINT, the character is now dealing with their flaws - which are ever-present. They may also be dealing with literal bad guys closing in. External and internal bad guys close in on the character.
While this sounds negative, it shouldn't be. Not all of it.
If the character experienced a false victory, BAD GUYS CLOSE IN is a downward path towards the ALL IS LOST moment (with occassional bouncing balls thrown in).
If the character experienced a false defeat, this beat is generally an upward path to the ALL IS LOST moment.
No matter what path the character is on, they will be dealing with their growing flaws.
ALL IS LOST (75%) - single-scene beat
...until they've tried everything else, until they've lost everything that's important to them, they can't see the true path (Brody, 2018)
This is the lowest part of the novel. No matter what happens in FUN AND GAMES, MIDPOINT and BAD GUYS CLOSE IN, the character will hit a low point where they feel as though they have nothing left.
Whatever it is that happens here, this beat must have a bigger impact than the CATALYST.
According to Brody (2018), there is also a "whiff of death" in this beat. Someone dies, nearly dies or there is a hint at death - a whiff. This can refer to an actual death, or brush with death, or the death of a relationship, friendship or business.
Oh...and this must be somewhat the character's fault. Their internal bad guys (flaws) have caused them to make mistakes.
This beat needs to present a lesson they can learn from.
DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL (75-80%) - multi-scene beat
This shows how the character reacts to what happened in ALL IS LOST. You might be asking yourself why these reaction beats are relevant. While the action gives the reader some intensity and entertainment, these reaction beats show who your character is as they transform throughout their journey. This is very pivotal for when it comes time to remove that festering shard of glass and experience their last transformation.
You might also be wondering how to make this beat interesting. Brody calls DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL “the wallowing beat” (2018), how could that be interesting? The character’s just moping about the place. BORING! But the character could be mourning a death or analysing their future while they pack their house up (ready to move). This wallowing leads them to a revelation.
As this spans across multiple scenes or chapters, something must happen. Imagine a character wallowing for three chapters without any plot advancement.
Before BREAK INTO 2, the character had to answer a question – what now? Before breaking into 3, the character asks the same question. Now that they feel helpless and hopeless, what will they do? How can they make this better?
ACT 3 (Synthesis World)
BREAK INTO 3 (80%) – single-scene beat
Because of everything you’ve put the character through, they now know the answer to the question in DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL. They know how to fix the problems from Act 2 and how to fix themselves.
Show the reader the character’s realisation and the decision they make after the epiphany. How do they fix everything? If they are selfish, they realise they must think of others more, they then take steps to do this. What will fix the issue?
FINALE (80-99%) – multi-scene beat
The finale is one of my favourite parts to outline and write. Brody breaks this portion down into a Five-Point Finale (2018):
In The Acro-Contessa, Aaliyah calls the shots from another location as she cannot be with the force. She has no idea what’s going on and it’s terrifying. After everything she’s been through, she’s still not sure if she’s making the right choice.
But eventually, the plan seems to come together. It just might be successful!
This is where you let the character shine. They must realise their potential, feel confident in their plan. Something has changed to show them they can win.
They’ve fallen into yet another trap. The plan was never actually going to work. This is another test for the character to push them into transforming.
In the “touched-by-the-divine moment” (Brody, 2018) they realise they have something deep down they must shed in order to move forward. And it’s that shard of glass. That horrible flaw that has made their life a living hell. It is now time to dig down and pull it out, to move into their new future, to finally learn the theme.
“This pulls the entire “message” of your story into focus and leaves the reader with something to remember” (Brody, 2018).
FINAL IMAGE (99 – 100%) – single-scene beat
This is the final scene or chapter. It opposes OPENING IMAGE, showing how much the character has changed. So, show how far they’ve come, what their new world looks like, their outlook on life after learning the theme of their story.
This outlining method may seem daunting but, remember, you cannot lack when it comes to proper planning. The reason why these methods work is because they emulate real life. They also emulate a lot of the television shows (and movies and books!) you watch.
You want to know the really fun part? This list is subjective. You can add scenes and subtract them at will, twist them in all sorts of ways. This is not an outline stuck in stone.
If you really enjoy outlining, why not incorporate a couple of different types? The beats from Save the Cat! Writes a Novel go well with the Plot Embryo and the Three-Act Structure!
Freelance Editor, Mentor, Author.