How to Build A Story

I recently saw a question on a Discord server that I subscribe to, about how to outline and/or put together your plot. Before starting Children of Abeona, I had done a lot of research on this, and finally arrived at a sort of composite method which I actually found to be quite useful, and which I mentioned in a previous blog post. I answered in that chat with a terse description of the method I use, but it set me thinking that it might make a good topic for a short article.

This method is kind of a combination of the "save the cat" or standard three-act method, and the Snowflake Method. I had originally intended to just follow the SM, but I found it far too involved and structured, leaving little to no room for the kind of problem-solving and inspiration which I find often happens between the known plot points—it essentially sucks the life out of all the characters and the process of writing itself. There was, however, some merit to it: a certain amount of further structure between the three acts could definitely be helpful. Why? Because it allows for a more twisty, interesting, eventful plot style. With a simple three-act structure, you'll get a general plot outline, but most decently sized books have several twists, small events and occurrences, and character moments that fall in between those big act changes and which don't directly contribute to the acts themselves.

In light of this, I could have simply added an innumerable number of bullet points between each act, but this did not feel satisfying enough. Instead, I conceived (tangentially inspired by the SM) of a sort of fractal pattern: each act could have a set of three subpoints, each of which was related to the parent act itself, but relatively speaking would act as an act-within-an-act. I thought this would allow for an easier time with keeping track of and planning twists, as well as the actual progression between acts. If you just have the acts, you sort of know where you need to go, and where you're going from—but you don't know how you're going to get there. Sort of like when you initially use the three acts to structure the journey of the novel (when you know how it will end and how it will begin, but not the journey). Normally this leads to an overly linearly paced and simple plot from point A to point B. But what if we took the solution which worked for the overall novel (splitting the journey into three uniquely-focused parts) and apply it to each act itself? The overall outline that I arrived at with this method goes like this:

  1. Act 1: Inciting Incident
    1. Status Quo
    2. Something Happens
    3. Decision to Act
  2. Act 2: Midpoint
    1. Setback
    2. Twist/More Setbacks (2-3)
    3. Worst Position
  3. Act 3: Climax
    1. Reaction
    2. Rebirth
    3. Success
    4. New Status Quo

Essentially, I've taken the overarching theme of each act, and given it a beginning, a middle and an end. So the theme of act one is "how are we going to get the heroes to actually do something." Normally you'd just sort of write out how that happens, but my method says, well, let's pretend that we have a mini-story of how the heroes decide. In that mini-story, we start out with the status quo, we have an event which our heroes have to think about, and then we have the end (which coincides with the ultimate goal of the mini-story): the heroes finally decide to act. Then, for the midpoint, we know we need to prepare for the climax and develop the characters, as well as expand the world. In order to do those things, we need this to be the longest section of the book, and we also need problems for our characters to interact with and solve. Therefore, we start with a setback to their decision (if there wasn't one, and they just needed to decide, we'd need no story), then once they've solved it, several more setbacks that steadily make their situation worse and worse (even if the heroes nominally "solve" the setbacks), until the "climax" of the midpoint mini-story arrives: where the heroes are not only in the worst position they could have been in (compared to the status quo), but realize it. Then, for the climax, we want to tell a mini-story about how they get to that blinding moment of conclusion. To start, then, we need the players to react to their terrible situation and come to a conclusion about how to fix it. Then we need them to actually embark on solving it—this is where a few more setbacks might happen, and where they'll usually have the most emotional impact. Then, finally, the characters are successful.

Books can end with that success, and some do (or very nearly), but usually, there are a few plot threads to clean up, and very rarely authors decide that they want to depict their characters living "happily ever after." This, for standalone novels, is often considered boring or unnecessary. For the end of long series, it can also grate, but it depends on how many threads there were, and what you feel the characters have "earned." But for books at the beginning or middle of the series, this step can be essentially for setting up the next book and explaining or introducing a larger world that wasn't really necessary for the plot. You can think of this like the Marvel post-credits scenes.

Within each sub-act you can have up to twelve or thirteen granular plot points, but those are pretty self-explanatory. Also, it is highly advisable that if your story has several plot threads—following different time periods or characters—you'll want to do one of these outlines for each thread, with explanations of how they sync up. In addition, each character should get an act-wise or sub-act-wise character arc outline to help keep track of which plot points do what for your characters. I also like to keep a character table around.

I haven't actually finished any full length novels yet, so do take this all with a large pinch of salt, but I'm finding it to be pretty useful so far and I hope other people might as well.

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