Coffee, chocolate, and creating a story structure
Project: Raven Novel is about teaching myself how to plot a novel, and I’ve made some exciting progress in the last week. In fact, I’ve officially got the first sequence — 1/8th of the book — plotted out.
But, having 1/8th done means I’ve still got 7/8ths to go — and it feels like a LONG way to go.
A lot has got to happen, and I don’t have all the answers or even most of them. But I’m starting to feel that if I just keep chipping away at the mountain good things will happen.
Below is the story of how I put together the first sequence of the novel I’m writing.
Putting Raven to the Test
Not having the answers made me wonder if I had enough of an idea to make it all the way through a novel. So, before I got too far ahead of myself, I decided to make sure.
I didn’t want to get a quarter of the way or halfway done and run out of steam and ideas, like I’ve heard happens sometimes. tested my story idea to see if I had the main pieces I needed.
To test whether I had enough of an idea to really get going, I used this helpful post by Shaunta Grimes to test my story.
Shaunta’s idea is that if she knows what’s going to happen in 5 key points in the story, then she knows she’s got enough for a novel that can go the distance.
I’ll describe those 5 plot points here and use the examples Shaunta gave from the Wizard of Oz in her article to illustrate them.
The Inciting Incident: The event that kicks off the story. It basically asks e main character: Do you want to come into the world of this story?
Oz Example: Dorothy meets Dr. Marvel, after running away from home to save her dog, and is invited to join him on the road.
The Lock-In: This is the main character’s answer to the question. It’s always yes. The lock-in is the decision the main character makes that commits them to the adventure.
Oz Example: Dorothy decides to head down the Yellow Brick Road to find the wizard to ask for help getting home.
Mid-Point Climax: The second biggest scene in the whole story, coming halfway through.
Mid-Point Climax: Dorothy and her friends reach the Emerald City. They get ready to meet the Wizard and think their problems are solved.
Main Climax: The biggest moment in the story. Sometimes called the dark night of the soul, because in a book that isn’t tragic, it’s the darkest scene.
Oz Example: The Wicked Witch of the West has Dorothy and her friends cornered. Dorothy spills water over her, melting her right before their eyes.
Third Act Twist: This is the scene that turns your story around from the dark night of the soul to the win at the end.
Oz Example: Dorothy and her friends had the qualities they sought inside of them all along.
Passing with Flying Colors
Did I have those moments blocked out for my story? Turns out I did.
Inciting Incident: Raven is kidnapped by persons unknown.
Lock-In: Don Cuervo gives up on convincing the police and embassy to help him search for Raven and launches his own search.
Mid-Point Climax: Don Cuervo thinks he has located Raven, but when he arrives at the location he expects her to be, she is not there. Instead, he finds a note from her kidnapper, Señor Hidalgo, demanding a ransoming exchange for Raven’s life. Don Cuervo has 3 days to pay it.
Main Climax: Don Cuervo has captured Hidalgo’s son, El Cangrejo, and a deal is made to exchange the children. But the treacherous Hidalgo escapes with his son and Raven. All is lost for Don Cuervo.
Third Act Twist: Don Cuervo realizes that there is another way of freeing Raven and launches a daring plan to rescue her with the help of his friends.
Breaking it Down
Passing the story tests was really good news, but a lot of the story was still blank. There was a lot more white space than I was comfortable with.
The first thing I did was work on other projects for about 5 days.
Why? I was intimidated.
But one morning I woke up and with the help of two cups of coffee, worked up the courage to open up my notebook. I decided that since breaking the novel down into smaller pieces had been working so far, I would keep at it.
I decided to think about only the beginning of the book. The part of the story where we meet the characters and learn what their world is like.
This is sometimes called Act 1. That sounds fancy, but all it means is the beginning of the story. Act 1 is what happens before the adventure begins.
In the Wizard of Oz, it’s Dorothy’s life in Kansas with her aunt and uncle.
This article (Shaunta again) about creating the Act 1 world was really helpful for me.
Getting My Acts Together and Sequences Straight
I’m pausing here for a quick discussion of Acts and Sequences.
Since Aristotle or even before, stories have been broken into three acts. Act 1, 2, 3. Beginning middle, and end. Act 1 is about 25% of the story, Act 2 takes up about 50%, and Act 3 takes up about 25%.
The midpoint is right in the middle of the story, right in the middle of Act 2.
You can see how that gives us four equal parts, or quarters of the story. If you cut those four parts in half you get 8 sequences.
In the early days of movies, the projectors couldn’t hold enough film for the entire movie, so the movie was broken into sequences. The sequences were structured so there was something interesting at the end of each roll of film to keep the people from leaving while the rolls changed.
The way it worked out, there were 2 sequences in Act 1, 4 sequences in Act 2, and 2 sequences in Act 3. A total of 8 sequences make up a movie.
That framework has been adapted for novels.
Generally speaking, each sequence has a certain set of events in it. You can read more about another of Shaunta’s articles. This is a slightly edited version of her explanation of what goes at the end of each sequence.
Sequence one ends with the Inciting Incident, when the hero is invited into the story.
Sequence two ends with the Lock-In, when the hero accepts that invitation.
Sequence three’s climactic scene is usually a little less dramatic.
Sequence four ends with the Mid-Point Climax. A big to-do in the middle of the story.
Sequence five usually has another less dramatic ending with the hero reacting to whatever huge even took place in the Mid-Point Climax.
Sequence six ends with the Main Climax, which is usually the lowest point for the main character.
Sequence seven gets the third act twist, this is the ah-hah moment when the hero finally figures out what they need to know to defeat the villain.
Sequence eight ends with the resolution and wrap up that conclude the story.
Now that we’ve covered that, let’s get back to Raven.
Act 1 Heroes Are Unhappy Heroes
In the beginning, the lives of our heroes are usually a mess. They’ve got all kinds of problems. What they don’t know is that whatever they will learn on their quest will help them solve these problems.
They’re moping around being flawed humans, making bad decisions, and living an imperfect life.
When I looked over Raven and the Mango Roadtrip — the story I am expanding into a novel — I found I had a lot already written about what Raven and Don Cuervo were doing before Raven got kidnapped.
And, when I looked at the recent posts in Project: Raven Novel, I was writing about Don Cuervo’s discontents. He was having a hard time adjusting to living in Mexico culturally. He was stuck in the mindset he’d developed in his old job, in his old life. He didn’t know what Raven was up to with the cryptocurrency.
I realized that with a few tweaks, I could use what I’d already written for Sequence 1 — from the beginning of the story to the Inciting Incident.
I rewarded myself with a chocolate bar and kept going.
My First Sequence
I skimmed over the relevant pieces of writing, made some notes, ate some chocolate, drank some coffee, and came up with the following breakdown covering the beginning of the book to the Inciting Incident.
Scene 1: First Attempt
Sticking with the opener from the story, an attempt is made to kidnap Raven. Raven and her dad escape. This exciting opening scene will grab the reader’s attention, introduce them to Raven and Don Cuervo, and establish the setting of the book (Tulum, Mexico).
Scene 2: Ravens and Beans
After escaping the kidnappers, Don Cuervo and Raven flee to Cancún. They try to figure out who is trying to kidnap her.
Scene 3: Raven and the Cenote Dream
Raven and Don Cuervo return to Tulum. Raven interprets a dream of Don Cuervo’s to mean he must contact Pato and Santa Sofía to help solve the mystery of who attempted to kidnap her. Here we will see glimpses of their day to day life in Tulum.
Scene 4: Rolling the Dice with Santa Sofia
Don Cuervo visits the house of Pato and Santa Sofía. Pato is not home, so Don Cuervo talks with Santa Sofía, who suggests that his main impediment is his refusal to update his mindset to face current realities. He more or less rejects this advice.
Scene 5: Snakes is Snakes
Leaving Santa Sofía’s house, Don Cuervo meditates on the differences between his current reality and the one he left behind in Alaska. This will largely be taken from the blog post Snakes is Snakes.
Scene 6: A Ticket and a Maze
Set mostly in the dive shop, which isn’t doing well, this scene will show how Don Cuervo’s refusal to change is negatively affecting his business as well. Though I’m using the title of an existing chapter, this is going to be almost entirely rewritten.
Scene 7: What’s She Doing in There?
Arriving at home, Don Cuervo finds Raven in her room, plugged into the internet undoing more of whatever it was that attracted the attention of the kidnappers. This will largely be taken from the blog post. At the end of this scene, Don Cuervo and Raven will argue.
Scene 8: Kidnapped
Unknown men are dragging Raven out of the hostel as Don Cuervo arrives to talk to her. Don Cuervo and Ramón’s are unable to stop them. To make matters worse, Ramón is injured in the struggle. None of this has been written.
So, there it is. Sequence 1, from beginning to inciting incident. This novel isn’t plotted yet, but it is sure as heck on the way.
- I tested my story idea by mapping out 5 key plot points and gave myself the green light.
- The project still felt daunting, so I bit off a smaller piece.
- Stories (movies, novels) are commonly broken down into Acts and Sequences
- Coffee and chocolate helped me plot most of Sequence 1.