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 #1: Plotting the 3-act Structure
Authors generally divide themselves into a couple of camps of writing styles: planners and pantsers. In a nutshell, planners are the ones who do outlines and other pre-work, while pantsers just sit down and write by the seat of their pants (hence the moniker).
I’m a planner, big time. Always have been, always will be. I’m one of those people who, when confronted with a new and unfamiliar task, immediately does a google search or buys a reference book on Amazon. Oftentimes both.
So it comes as no surprise that when I write a novel, the actual writing part of it comes nowhere near the beginning of the process. Far before I begin writing, I have the main characters pretty well fleshed out and a plot framework–a kind of story skeleton–in place. I try to leave a bit of room in the skeleton in case great ideas come to me later on, but for the most part I begin the writing process already knowing who’s doing what to whom, the story’s beginning, its major events, and how things will turn out in the end.
When I decided to write SOLEDAD, I knew a few things before starting out. I knew I wanted to write a relatively short novel, around 65K to 70K words (most novels these days are 100K words or more), and I wanted to keep the storytelling structure somewhat uncomplicated, meaning a single character point of view (POV). Why did I go this route, you ask? Well, it was my first novel and I wanted to keep things simple, and when you have less moving parts (single POV, for example), you have less things to worry about, and not insignificantly, less things to screw up.
Anyway, after a bit of research (planner, remember?), one of the first things I came up with was the story structure and its main plot points. For the sake of simplicity, I used a 3-act structure, a storytelling model most often used in movies. Given my desired novel length, a 3-act structure seemed like a good fit. I’m also a very visual person, so for me it was helpful to overlay the main story points onto a diagram (I found the great graphic below on Ingrid Sundberg’s blog on writing*).
Here’s what the 3-act chart looks like before I added my story notes for SOLEDAD:
a higher resolution version can be found here
Now here’s what it looks like after I added my plot points and notes (the colored rectangles):
a higher resolution version can be found here
Now, I know this may look pretty thin, but keep in mind that this is only the broadest of brush strokes, the “tent poles” that hold up the large canvas of the story. Let’s look at them one by one.
Fiona’s place in the world – Who the heck is Fiona??? Well, Fiona was the name I used for the main character before I settled on Soledad, and I never went back and updated this document, which I created pretty early in the process. Anywhere you see “Fiona,” just think “Soledad.” Anyway, this is where I “set the scene” of Soledad’s current life, her place in the world. She lives in a desert camp, using her special powers in the service of Guzmán. She’s in his inner circle, but not really “family” (the true nature of family is a big theme of the book). She’s also miserable. In act 1 we’re setting a baseline of sorts, establishing the “normal world,” introducing the main players, and grounding the reader before we go and start throwing chaos into the mix.
Fiona [Soledad] discovers Abner is alive – This is the rock that comes through the window, the event that shatters the integrity of Soledad’s everyday existence. Also known as the “call to action” or “inciting incident” or “the catalyst.” It’s the thing that happens that changes everything in the main character’s life, that turns their world upside down. In our story, this moment comes when Soledad sees Abner, a family friend who suddenly appears in Guzmán’s camp one day, someone she thought had been killed with her parents. If Abner is alive, she thinks, then her parents might be alive too! Finding out what happened to her parents is the obsession that drives Soledad for the rest of the story.
Her trusted bodyguard stops her – Here we have Lela, Soledad’s bodyguard / caretaker, acting as a “threshold guardian,” or someone who tries to prevent the main character from moving forward, oftentimes for what seem like good reasons. When Soledad sees Abner, she runs after him, but Lela stops her, preventing her from finding out more.
She forces the trader to take her to the north – This is where Soledad schemes to escape Guzmán’s camp and find her way to the north. She scams a crusty old trader (referred to as “blond ponytail” in the story) to serve as her guide to Dallas, where she thinks she’ll find Abner and the answers to her past. When she escapes the camp, she’s “crossing the threshold” into act 2 of the story. Soledad’s exodus from Guzmán’s camp marks a kind of point of no return, when she makes a decision from which there’s no going back. And with that, she enters act 2.
Trials in the desert – In act 2, Soledad has some ups and downs. She encounters obstacles in the form of drone attacks and unexpected barriers. Along the way, she also has some small victories, all while the stakes continue to rise and people and events try to push her further from her goal.
Bodyguard executed – If you look in the text of the novel, you’ll see that the stoning of Lela comes almost right at the 50% mark of the book. This is the real “mind fuck” moment for Soledad, where she suffers a huge loss. You might also notice there’s a note that says “trader re-captured.” Remember how I mentioned that I like to keep an outline loose, in case I get a better idea later on? This is one of those times when I decided to stray from the outline. In the original plot skeleton, when Soledad escapes the Fundies at Lake Conroe, she forcibly takes blond ponytail with her. For a number of reasons, though, this didn’t quite seem to work when I was writing this section. It made more sense for the old crook to disappear from the narrative for a while, so I had him slip away instead of accompanying Soledad to Dallas. He reappears in Dallas in Act 3.
Both Fundies and Guzmán chasing her – Here, too, I made some changes to the original outline. When Soledad is in the home stretch for Dallas, it’s only Guzmán’s forces that are closing in (vs. both Guzmán and the Fundies). Again, for story reasons that had more to do with books 2 and 3 (planner, remember?), I let the Fundies and Reverend Wright fade into the background after the battle at Conroe.
Discovers parents are alive – Soledad finally makes it to Dallas, where she finds her parents are indeed alive and well. Her happy reunion, though, is short-lived when she finds out her parents’ dark secret and the danger this knowledge puts her in. The horrible revelation concerning her family’s history is Soledad’s “inmost cave” in the parlance of the 3-act structure, where she finally finds what she is looking for and she goes through her big change / decision point (i.e., her epiphany). This epiphany marks the end of act 2. And, sorry, the bad news she discovers is the one spoiler I won’t give away, so if you haven’t read the book, go buy it! 🙂
Unleashes the rogue AI – Now that she’s decided upon her final course of action, there’s a final push toward resolution. For Soledad, “resolution” means destroying the world her parents live in (overreaction? well, she’s young), and she unleashes a powerful technology that leaves Dallas defenseless and vulnerable to Guzmán’s troops, who subsequently take the city in a final battle.
She reconciles with Guzmán – After the battle, the climax of the story, we’ve got our denouement (which I like to wrongly pronounce “de-nowee-ment” as often as possible), otherwise known as the “falling action” or “resolution.” In a typical film, this would be the last 10 minutes or so, where all the loose ends are tied up (or left deliberately untied as a connecting event for a sequel). In the falling action, our main characters take a breath and settle into their new place in the world, for better or for worse, armed with the new perspective forged from the story’s events. For Soledad, this comes in the form of an unexpected reconciliation with Guzmán and her redefinition of what a family truly is. The question of what defines a family is the central theme of the book, but for the sake of space I won’t go into that here. I may do a deeper dive on theme in a separate post.
I hope you enjoyed this peek behind the scenes of my novel SOLEDAD. In part 2, we’ll take a look at the next step in my “pre-writing” process, a more detailed “plot skeleton,” which I use to document the story arcs for the main characters and the main events for each chapter.
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*Original source of the 3-act structure graphic can be found on Ingrid Sundberg’s blog at this link