SPOILER ALERT: The “Deconstructing SOLEDAD” blog series takes a look at the novel writing process step-by-step. For those who’ve read SOLEDAD, I hope you enjoy this “behind the scenes” peek into the creation process. And if you haven’t read SOLEDAD yet, you are hereby duly warned there are spoilers aplenty in the following posts.
DECONSTRUCTING SOLEDAD #2: The Plot Skeleton (a.k.a. Detailed Outline)
In my last post (you can read it here), I described how I started the novel-writing process for SOLEDAD by planning out a 3-act structure with high-level descriptions of the major plot points. And since I’m a visual person, I used a nice 3-act structure graphic I found that helped the process (see it here).
One thing I like about using a movie-based 3-act structure (as depicted in the last blog’s graphic, again here) is that movies often use storytelling conventions around the length of the acts that viewers have come to implicitly expect from films. This structure (adopted from theatre) is a kind of shorthand between the writer and the audience, and it implies a certain pacing to the story. Whether we explicitly realize it or not, as moviegoers we all understand that 20 minutes into the movie, we’ll have a really good idea of the trajectory the plot will take.
Take, for instance, the “crossing the threshold” moment a character goes through, which signals the end of Act 1. At this point in the story, the character commits to a goal, leaving his or her “normal world” behind and passing beyond some point of no return. In Star Wars, it’s when Luke decides to leave Tatooine with Obi Wan. In Harry Potter, it’s when Harry leaves his Uncle and Aunt’s house for Hogwarts. Normally, in a movie the end of Act 1 comes no later than 20-30 minutes into the film, or roughly 25% of the way into the story.
The reason I mention all this is because in movies, the pacing we expect in a story translates well to a novel, especially a novel on the shorter side (like SOLEDAD, a work of around 65 thousand words in length). And for SOLEDAD, using this pacing meant that Act 1 would be the first 25% of the novel, Act 2 would be the middle 50% (where the bulk of the story is told), and Act 3 would be the final 25% of the story.
Since I already know my high-level 3-act structure, the next step is putting some meat on my outline bones, or filling up my 3 acts with scenes and chapters. To keep the reader engaged and turning pages, these scenes and chapters need to do several things simultaneously:
- They must create an engaging world for the reader
- They must build the story—in a cause-and-effect way—through the plot points I’ve already laid out in my high-level outline. My editor likes to call these the “tent poles” of the story. I like that analogy. 😊
- They must move the reader along a compelling story arc for each of the major characters.
Now, obviously these are the basics, VERY boiled down. Scenes and chapters should do A LOT more than this, but since this is a blog and not a how-to book, we’ll keep things simple.
Do you remember how I told you I’m a planner? Well, you’re about to see just how much of a planner I am. Every time I’ve shown this next file to fellow authors, they usually react with wide eyes and, occasionally, rolled ones. If you’re the kind who likes to write by the seat of their pants, please stop and take a deep breath before reading onward.
My “plot skeleton” file (see screenshot below) takes my plot points and blows them up into detailed scenes and chapters. It also enables me to document how each of the main characters are progressing through their journeys. Let’s take a look.
Here it is in all its glory. And while I’d love to give credit where credit is due, for the life of me I can’t remember where I found this tool online. So thank you, whoever you are. If this is a bit hard to read on your screen, here a a couple higher res versions (here it is in PowerPoint and here it is in Excel).
Above is the plot skeleton for the beginning of SOLEDAD. It takes us through about half of the first act, right up to the “inciting incident,” the catalyst that propels our main plot forward. The entire skeleton, obviously, is a lot longer than this snapshot (Soledad has 25 chapters, and this is only the first four), and it took a fair amount of time to create.
Starting left to right, the first two columns are labeled “outer journey” and “inner journey.” The outer journey column captures what’s happening in the plot at the surface level, or the actions taking place in the physical world. In Star Wars, this would be things like Luke arguing with his Aunt and Uncle about school, Luke acquiring two new droids from the Jawas, and so on. The inner journey column tracks what’s happening in our main characters’ voyage of discovery, or how they’re evolving as a character over the course of the story. Luke hates his boring life on a moisture farm and longs for excitement, for example. Note that in those first two columns I left in place the template notes as reminders (increased awareness for change, show “normal world, etc.). These serve as my road signs for the story arcs.
In the next two columns (with the same exact header titles), I put in the outer and inner journeys for my story. As you can see I didn’t write too much in the “outer journey” column. That’s because SOLEDAD was based on a short story I wrote, so I already had a very good feel for the whats and wheres of the first few chapters, all of which mirrored the shorter work. In the inner journey column, though, I go into some detail about my protagonist’s state of mind.
I use the space in the “chapter summary” column to write a short paragraph summarizing what happens in that particular chapter (he said, somewhat redundantly). Each chapter is like a self-contained little story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and I try to capture those beats in this chapter summary section of the skeleton. The next column is reserved for that chapter’s surprise or twist. Not all my chapters end with twists / surprises, but I like having this column here so I can ensure I have enough of them along the way to keep readers engaged and turning pages.
The next column is “setting / location.” Self-explanatory, yes?
The remaining columns are reserved for the story arcs of the minor characters. We can’t forget about them, can we? Our minor cast of characters shouldn’t be two-dimensional or mere stage decoration—they should go through their own journeys as well. Using Star Wars again, think about Han Solo. The story’s not built around him, but he certainly undergoes a change over the course of the film, from a selfish rogue who puts money before everything to a hero who comes to value friendship and loyalty.
So that’s my plot skeleton, and its creation is phase two of my outlining process, taking things from a pretty general visual 3-act structure map to a fairly detailed chapter-by-chapter summary, documenting the whats and wheres along with all the main the character arcs.
So now we’re ready to write, yes? Well, no. I actually have one more mini-stage before I start drafting my manuscript, and I’ll cover that in my next blog.
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