ComicFury is an awesome place and I'm glad I found it! However, after reading the forums and seeing a lot of complaints, I noticed one thing several people are struggling with:
Good Story Form
Oh, I've been there, trust me. I know the aches and pains of trying to properly construct a story. I've experienced my share of a powerful start that leads to an awkward rut. That's why I'm going to leave this here. It's called Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet, and it's wonderful.
Now, some of you might not be planners or have been doing this for a while! That's fine, and kudos to your success! However, for us aspiring writers who are still figuring it out, we might need a little help. I'm one of them, and this has helped me a lot.
Spoiler: All this link is going to do is give you guys some key objectives to put in your story. The rest is up to you.
I picked up Blake Snyder's Save the Cat off a recommendation of another Furian and it's SO helpful :D Without realizing it I was already following the beat sheet pretty closely for the first half, and because of that it's helping me generate ideas for the second half where I had no idea how to order events or pace it. I'm gonna be using the beat sheet to untangle the midpoint-third act a lot~
I've read Save the Cat. He gives some good advice.
And I think, if you are struggling to get your story into a form then go ahead and use the beat sheet.
However, be careful with it: it leads to very formulaic stories -- how could it not? When it is telling you to do things in a very precise order. In the book he even tells you exactly how many scenes to have (I didn't read the beat sheet enough to see if he does here too). You get 40 scenes... 9 in act 1, 18 in act 2, 9 in act 3... and then the 4 "freebies" you can put wherever you want/think they need to go at your discretion (or not use at all).
Now I don't know about the rest of you but I find it hard to fathom that every story on earth could be told in exactly 36 to 40 scenes, or that every single story on earth can be told in exactly 3 acts, or that every story on earth should have acts of exactly the 1:2:1 length ratio Snyder's process recommends. In fact nearly all of Shakespeare's plays are 5 acts, not 3, and I doubt any of them have the exact number of scenes he describes. (For example Hamlet has 20 scenes total across 5 acts.)
Also I will point out that Snyder may have written that book and all, and been a script consultant, but he wrote few actual screenplays of produced movies, and at least one of the ones he wrote (and I think in fact more than one) earned a razzie or something for 'worst screenplay of the year.' So I am not at all sure I want to take his advice all that much to heart.
He does have 2 bits of advice though that I do agree with:
1. As the title goes, save the cat. What he means by this is, have the protagonist or hero or whoever you want the audience to pull for, do something kind or rescuey for another person or animal or what have you) at the start of the movie. E.g. Mr. Incredible stopping to save a cat out of a tree (which is where the name comes from). This will make the audience immediately like your hero because it's a nice thing to do. Even if the protagonist turns out to be a murdery mobster later on, if he lets, say, his "hit" go out of mercy in the opening scene, the audience will stay with him for the long haul, knowing that he is worth rooting for deep down.
2. Every payoff needs a setup. This is basically Checkhov's "gun rule"... If you're going to have a gun figure prominently in the climax, you'd better show the gun hanging on the wall before you get there, or it seems like you're just pulling stuff out of thin air. Snyder's example is if you have your protagonist, 50 min into the movie, shoot a guy dead in the eye at 100 feet with a pistol, you'd better show him hitting the bulls-eye on a pistol range before that or the audience will find it unbelievable.
I agree with both of those bits of advice.
With the Snyder Beats -- well, I tried to write that way, and I cannot. Others might be able to. If you are struggling with putting together a story it might help. But I don't use them myself. And again, be careful not to end up with a very formulaic story. (Hollywood uses the STC beat method a lot, which is why so many movies that we see today make you feel like you've seen them before -- because fundamentally, you have.)
I really appreciate your honesty in this. I will admit at times that it does get formulaic. However, the four parts of his beat sheet that I definitely believe have to be in every story are the Set Up, the Stated Theme, the Midpoint and All is Lost. Those are just natural reactions to uncontrollable situations.
Again, I'd argue that these might be fine to put in stories and may exist in lots of stories but they are not required of every story.
For example, I do not agree with him that the theme has to be stated at all let alone up-front at the beginning. To be honest I think it's best to just write your story and let the theme arise out of it as an 'emergent property.' Even Snyder says that it's OK not to have a theme in mind and just let it happen. Jeff Gerke, writer of many books on writing such as Plot vs. Character and Write your Novel in A Month (about how to 'win' NaNoWriMo) in fact advises NOT coming up with a theme up-front if you can manage not to. Gerke argues that as an editor he has seen many novels with the theme being too 'hit over the head' obvious and these end up being polemics rather than fiction. As someone who reads a lot of sci-fi I have to agree with him -- at least 50% of the sci-fi out there seems to be social commentary and much of it is VERY heavy-handed. (I'm looking right at you, Robert Sawyer's Hominids.)
Also, as I have mentioned several times on this board (and I know a few people here don't like it), there is a book that gives advice contrary to Snyder's, Gerke's, and many others, Story Trumps Structure by thriller-writer Steven James. Now James is no Shakespeare, but he does write very page-turney fiction. And the point of his book is that you shouldn't worry about artificial constructs like 3 acts or checkpoints or milestones ("beats" in Snyder's parlance), but rather, just write an engaging story. If it has 11 acts, so what, as long as people like it? He also argues against plotting the whole story out ahead of time (which is what Snyder's Beat Sheet is making you do) because it can lead to plot contrivances and particularly characters seeming to act out of character.
James' fundamental argument here is that when you start a book, you don't know your characters yet. Sure maybe you have a 1-page character sketch, so you know what they look like and personality and so forth, but you haven't really gotten to know them well. How can you, he asks, possibly know how this relatively unfamiliar character would naturally act (or change) in the climactic scene when you haven't written one page of her dialogue (or internal monologue) yet? He argues (and I completely agree with this because I have done it more than once myself) that this leads to forced action -- the character does this unrealistic thing in scene 11 because he has to for scene 12 to happen, and scene 12 must happen because you planned for it to. And so forth.
So instead, James recommends, put your characters into a scene and just write it. And see what happens.
And I feel like for my writing at least, this is by far a more successful tack than Snyder's "beat sheet." Yeah I came up with a technically acceptable story using Snyder's sheet, but it wasn't very good. And it had a lot of me 'forcing' the characters to do what they needed to do to get to the next beat.
James would say, ditch that and just write your story. If it has 1 act or 100, who cares? If it has 40 beats or 4, so what? If it's a compelling story, that's all you need it to be.
Or, as Gerke would say (which I also like) the only rule in fiction is 'engage the reader.' If you are doing that, all else - beats, acts, whatever -- is negotiable.
However, all that said... if you are having trouble coming up with a workable plot, Snyder's method will get you one. It might be a little formulaic, but it will work. Which is way better than it not working.;)
There are a lot of books like this, and I'll credit having read a few with putting structure in my head at all. At least I'm aware of it now, and I do think in terms of three acts - if only in remembering that there has to be a beginning, middle and end - and that some things belong in certain places in that hierarchy. I still look at " formula" sheets and think about how my story fits in. But I think you're right to say that you have to be careful not to get caught up in the mechanics of the thing, such that you lose that moment to moment feeling of what's right and what's wrong. For me anyway. I've got to go with my gut. And heck, everything's a first draft, isn't it?
Edit - bouncyballs, thanks for posting - I didn't mean to discredit your reference or diminish at all the significance of using structure planning tools
30_Bouncyballs:So, you guys are suggesting just throw it out the window?
I'm not saying throw it all out, necessarily. I'm saying do what works for you. And engage the reader.
If thinking in terms of beats and landmarks and milestones and 3-act structure helps you (it helps MANY people!), do it. If it helps you write a more engaging story, absolutely do it.
I'm just saying don't feel beholden to it. Don't feel like you've done it "wrong" if your story has 21 acts instead of 3. Some of the greatest literature of all time defies the so-called "rules" and "have to dos".
For example, most (not all, but most) people advise you not to have a prologue. Or if you have it, not to do an 'info dump' at the beginning. But that's exactly what Tolkien did in Lord of the Rings, and it is one of the most famous, most successful not just fantasy novels but novels period of all time. He also didn't have 3 acts -- LOTR was published as a trilogy but it actually has 6 'books' to it, or acts. Six, not 3. He also broke the rule that you're not supposed to split the group up and then only focus on half of them for 400 pages and then go all the way back in time and pick the other group up where you left off 400 pages. His story so defies the modern conventions that when they made them into movies they had to re-arrange the whole thing. Now the re-arranged story of the LOTR movies could probably be said to have 3 acts, roughly one act per movie. But... the original novels did not run the same way and definitely did not have 3 acts.
So what I'm saying here is, do what you want, just like Tolkien did. But if using Snyder's beats or some other similar structure helps you, then by all means do it. Do what works.
What about objectives? Is it the same thing?
Objectives in what sense? Objectives of the characters? Or of your story? Are you saying that as a writer, you have certain objectives in mind for how you want the book to turn out? I'm a little confused by what you mean.
I want to echo Bee's comment about getting wrapped around the axle. Wow that is a great analogy. That's what happened to me. I have no formal training in this. All I knew was what I read. In high school, college, grad school, I wrote novels. Never published any but wrote a lot. And I was fairly good at it. I wrote decent stories. Publishable? No. But decent. People liked them (friends who read them, etc). Then a few years ago I decided to get 'serious' about maybe writing and trying to publish a novel and I decided I had to get some education.
So I bought all these books - Save the Cat!, Invisible Ink, How to Write Your Novel In a Month, Plot vs Character, Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict, Story Structure Architect, etc, etc. They all give similar but not entirely identical advice. Do this, do that, must have this, must have that. You have to have 3 acts. "Rising action." Climax. Denouement. Characters have to have flaws. Have to change. This change should be part of the climax. You should have a similar character to the protagonist who won't change, to show contrast. Turning points. All is lost. Theme. And on, and on, and on.
And so I tried to write a story following all of this advice and as Bee says -- I got wrapped around the axle. It paralyzed me. And worse, I came up with these story ideas that maybe ticked all the boxes but weren't any good at all. They didn't engage me, let alone could they ever engage a reader. And the upshot of it is, here I was this person who used to be able to write up a storm, ideas flowing, prose and narrative coming out faster than I could get it down, and... nothing. Total writers' block. I never had that before with fiction (non-fiction yes, such as writing a grant proposal, bleh, but not fiction). All the advice completely stripped my gears as it were.
I knew I had to do something, but I had all this advice in my head, these "must dos" and I couldn't get them out. I was about to give up, and then somehow as I was looking at my 'recommended' on either BN or Amazon, Story Trumps Structure popped up. Oh man, I argued (via notes and highlights) with James 2/3 of the way through the book. Write a book without a plot outline? INSANE! Don't decide the theme before I start? How will I write GREAT LITERATURE?!? Don't pick a character change to begin, just start writing and see how the character changes (or if)? Sacrilege! Blasphemy! Burn him at the stake!
But then... about half or 2/3 of the way in, he talked about how if you pre-plan and pre-plot, you can end up with scenes that feel forced, contrived, and unnatural. And as good as my writing had been before I got my gears all stripped, the one negative comment that people had about my writing, after telling me the prose was nice and the descriptive passages were great and all that, was that a lot of it seemed contrived or forced.
And that's when the light-bulb went off. The #1 weakness of my writing had been contrivance, and he was telling me why. All this stuff about the "must dos" was putting me into a situation where I almost couldn't help but contrive the story instead of telling what was natural.
So I dumped it all, and just started putting characters into the scene and see what happens. If you read Liberty Lass... I really have no idea what each scene is going to do until I write it. I write them all out of order, as they occur to me. I don't know how many issues a story arc will be. I don't even try to make 'issues' or 'pages.' I just write scenes as they occur to me, and then think 'what this character would do next would be...' etc. And then as James says many times -- revise, revise, revise.
Is it successful? I dunno... you'd have to ask my readers. But I hope if nothing else, it doesn't feel contrived. And at a minimum -- no more writers' block. I'm back to getting ideas so fast I can't write them all down. I'm done with like 13 issues of LL even though we're only on 5, and I have ideas for probably 20 more (I won't be able to do them all, but the ideas are there).
Is there 3 act structure to LL? I have no idea. I've not bothered to worry about it or go back and see if it's in there. I just tell the story the way I think it should go, and let the chips fall where they may. Whether it's good or bad from anyone else's point of view, *I* am happy with it -- in a way that writing using the "must dos" not only didn't help me do but actually prevented. "Must dos" took me from being an average writer to a bad one. If nothing else, James's Story Trumps Structure rule got me back to where I was, and maybe a little better.
Sorry, too long of a story but... oh well.
Again I am not saying not to outline or use beats or milestones or what have you for yourself. Just relating what did and didn't work for me.
Well, Steven Vincent, I'm really thankful for your brutal honestuy, really. You tell it in such a way that it doesn't feel rude, or standoffish. You're just being honest, and from the core of my being, thank you.
I think I've got an idea of how I'm going to continue now.