The role of structure in a 1st draft novel
by Meghan Ciana Doidge
Transitioning from writing screenplays into writing novels has been an exciting and daunting task. Exciting, because, after writing screenplays for over 10 years, I fell into writing my first novel, After The Virus, and the writing just flowed. Daunting because now I have to follow up and recapture the magic I found while writing After The Virus.
When I write a screenplay I rely heavily on structure to craft the 1st draft, and I mostly adhere to the Syd Field school. I don’t even write a single word, other than jotting down scene ideas or bits of dialogue when they come to me, until I have the entire screenplay plotted out. But, I didn’t craft my novel, After The Virus, in this same fashion, though it is quite structured (as that is just in my nature), however its structure ended up, by necessity I now believe, being flexible.
So as I jump into another novel (or 4) I’ve been thinking about screenplay structure and how it applies, for me, to novel writing. Here are the elements that I think are most helpful when crafting a 1st draft.
1. Three Acts – Beginning, Middle & End – this might be a no brainer for most writers, but it is odd how many stories don’t actually have a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. It is amazing how many novels and/or movies I have read/seen that don’t end well (God, that can ruin a story!!).
So pull out a piece of paper, divide it lengthwise into three sections, and jot down a sentence to describe the beginning of your story (aka your set-up), the middle (aka the confrontation) and the end (aka the resolution). By the way, each sentence should be about the plot not about the characters feelings or thoughts; what happens?
2. The beginning – start with the The Inciting Incident – what is the one action or plot point without which your entire story could not actually take place? Start writing there, and don’t worry about an introductory chapter or setting up the story. What propels the plot? What pushes your protagonist through the story?
After you’ve compelled your 1st draft and you still think you need an introductory chapter, write it in your 2nd draft pass. But start in action, and you’ll suck your reader right into the story. The character background, environmental elements, and other introductory items can be worked in to the action of the plot as you move forward.
If your story is a chess game, you lead with your queen not one of your pawns. Pawns are follow-up, development. Start strong. Play your queen.
[spoiler alert] In my novel, After The Virus, the inciting incident is when my main protagonist, Rhiannon chooses and succeeds in escaping her capture/captors. Without this action (aka plot point) none of the remaining story is possible. Note my emphasis on the protagonist choosing action, as there are not too many stories that can function well with a passive protagonist (there are, of course, always great exceptions to this and any other rule).
3. The middle – also known as the place where writers go to die a slow, painful death – solidify your The Midpoint - this is your hook from which your entire story hangs. If your story was actually hanger this would be the hook that hangs off the closet rod.
The entire first half of your book builds to this point and then something happens that propels us into the second half of the book. This something is directly tied to the main plot and completely changes the game. Someone dies, someone loses, or, in less action driven narratives, someone has a massive epiphany. This is the point of no return. The characters will never, ever be the same and, to repeat myself because I think it is important to stress this point, there is no going back.
To take this a little bit further, the midpoint is usually tied directly to the inciting incident.
[spoiler alert] The midpoint of my novel, After The Virus, is when the mute child, Snickers, falls in the river and Rhiannon--ever the hero--chooses (again, chooses), risking her own life, to dive in after the child. How is this tied to the inciting incident? By jumping in the river after Snickers, Rhiannon finds herself entering, under duress of course, the very city she escaped at the beginning of the novel. This midpoint also causes Will, the secondary protagonist, to step up and spring into action. There is literally no turn back from this point forward for Rhiannon or the plot.
Side note: speaking of being flexible with your 1st draft. What is now the midpoint of my novel (spoiler: Snickers going in the river) I had first thought was my turn into the 3rd Act (The Climax). As I was writing it became apparent I was wrong and this plot point was actually my midpoint.
4. The ending – ramp up to The Climax – after the midpoint this is what the entire set-up and confrontation of the novel has been building too, and, after this point, it is all resolution, which doesn’t necessarily mean we are in the happily-ever-after section of the story, but that everything that happens after the climax is a reaction to that climax.
This must be a big moment, ideally it should involve all your main characters, and it is (to paraphrase from Save the Cat) always the darkest night of the soul.
[spoiler alert] In After The Virus, the Climax is the moment Rhiannon stops fighting her (second set of) captors, willingly adopts the movie star persona, a mask which she has spent the entire novel attempting to shed, and chooses to face the evil she’s been running from, in order to save the child.
The 3rd Act of After The Virus opens with my absolute favourite scene of the novel. Here is the snippet:
A brisk, salty wind, they must be very close to the ocean here, blew through the buildings and billowed around and beyond her. The dress was instantly slicked against her. She could feel the light fabric lift about four feet behind her and her hair a similar sail. Her silk-sheathed nipples rose in protest of the chill, and a murmur, punctuated with gasps, rustled through the following crowd. She gritted her teeth at the exposure, at the perceived sexuality, at the perceived vulnerability of an involuntary bodily function.
They reached for her then.
Lining the sides of street, suddenly as far as she could see, they reached fingers for her, but didn’t touch.
She walked like that for a full block, so close she could feel the brush of energy from each fingertip--thousands of fingers.
What was she to them? The time before? Whatever it was, it wasn’t a role she was willing to accept, or that she was even qualified for.
That’s it! Just four elements with which to construct your 1st draft: Three Acts, Inciting Incident, Midpoint and Climax. Make sure the Inciting Incident, Midpoint and Climax are all tied together, like knots along the same piece of string.
Be flexible, let the writing just flow, don’t edit yourself…at least not until the 2nd draft!!
If you’d like to read my novel to see if I actually know anything about writing (which I hope to God - after all these years - I do, even if I don’t articulate it particularly well above), please check out, After The Virus:
And drop by my blog for a chat!
Thanks for reading,