Concept, Structure and Transformation – How to plan a novel

I’m almost finished with my revision of THE DEEP LINK — yay! But I’m so tired of working on the same thing for so long, I grind my teeth each time I open the document. So, to kick my writing spirits back into high gear, I already started working on my next novel. A standalone this time, in another story world.

*takes deep breath of fresh air*

Of course, with ‘working’ I mean exploring the idea & characters, not actually drafting it, because this time I will NOT make the same mistake and start to write without a concrete story concept. I’ve learned quite a lot from writing TDL, but the biggest lesson was on the necessity of having a clear understanding of story concept, basic story structure, and character arcs. That’s it. These are the 3 biggest and most important things a writer needs to master, IMO.

There’s a lesson in here for everyone, if I may be so bold. So read me out.

This is not about plotting versus pantsing.

It’s not about conforming to a predetermined structure versus writing freestyle.

This is about writing a first draft that doesn’t need any heavy restructuring, rewriting and neck-breaking to bring into a decent shape.

It’s about starting strong, and finishing strong, with as little headache as possible in between.

Story Concept

There are as many definitions of “story concept” out there as there are writing teachers, so to clarify what I’m talking about from the get-go, when I say “concept” I mean it the way Larry Brooks does. According to him (and he totally convinced me), a story concept is different from a story idea by its degree of completeness, by the fact that it contains The Conflict, and it already hints at the story’s structure.

It’s totally worth your time to go check out his posts on story concept. But if you ain’t got those ten minutes, here’s Larry’s wisdom in a few sentences:

“The secret of a successful concept is to move from the situational to the actionable.
From a state-of-being to a call-to-action.
From a snapshot toward a moving and evolving set of images and possibilities.
From a character to a journey.”
~Larry Brooks, The Secret To a Successful Concept

He gives a lot of useful examples too, and it can all be brought down to this:

“Without a strong concept a story becomes episodic. An examination of a life through a character. A look at theme by simply seeing it in various forms. A shifting focus from one source of dramatic tension to something else entirely, episode by episode, without a baseline core story driven by a conceptual proposition driving it all.”
            ~Larry Brooks, Beware the Under-Cooked Story Concept

And he proposes a “gut check”, a question to ask yourself before you begin writing, to check if what you’ve got to work with is an idea, or a concept:

“Does your concept lean into an “adventures of…” type of story, versus a SPECIFIC THING THAT HAPPENS AND MUST BE RESOLVED type of story? The latter is the concept you should be striving to craft.”
            ~Larry Brooks, Good to Great: Nail a Better Concept To Empower Your Story

What we usually start with, when we want to write a new story, is an idea. Maybe it’s a character’s face or manner, maybe it’s a place, or a situation, a conundrum, an interpersonal thing, or even an ending.

From there on out, plotters usually start to expand and fill in the gaps to arrive at a novel-length story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Maybe 3 arcs; maybe 4 parts; maybe an entire outline / detailed synopsis / scene-by-scene plan, depending on the degree of OCD the writer has.

From that same idea, a pantser might imagine (and take note of) a few key scenes that feel awesome, and start writing toward them, exploring the story idea as they draft.

But regardless if plotter or pantser, if that idea never ripens into a concept, the resulting draft will always feel a little weaker than it could be, a little incomplete, a little flabby.

It’s so worth the tiny investment of energy (like an afternoon of brainstorming, that’s what I usually need) to take that story idea and expand it into a concept. Go from that character you envision, to a character’s path to transformation. Go from that beautiful setting you imagine, to a world that will be forever altered by critical events. Go from that situation, that uncomfortable interpersonal situation (a bad marriage, domestic violence, a kidnapping, etc.) to a conflict that starts out at one specific point, continuously escalates toward an unbearable intensity, and then is resolved by the protagonist.

It’s all ultimately a matter of rephrasing your idea. Take it form static, to dynamic, from a state of being to an evolution of events.

That’s what concept is all about.

And the story you will write based on a solid, practical concept will be much richer and more satisfying than one based on a vague, though intriguing, idea.

The next step is to expand the concept a tiny bit more, into a basic story skeleton. For that, it needs to gain a bit of structure.

Basic Story Structure

There are dozens of novel structure templates. Three arcs. Four parts. Five parts. Seven parts. Circular. Mountain-shaped. Jagged all-over-the-place shaped. What have you.

I’ve read a lot about story structure, because I’m a plotter at heart, and because it fascinates me, even if I don’t necessarily apply it all.

And what I found is that all these theories essentially talk about the same basic, and practical story structure. Each writer expands on it as she sees fit, as the story or genre demands, or as the current market calls for. For me, the basic story structure I find most comfortable and logical to follow when I begin to work on a new story, is this:

  1. Inciting incident
  2. Midpoint
  3. Climax

That’s the minimum I must know before I write. And that’s as far as you may want to go, especially if you’re a pantser.

But if you feel the need for more, take a look at what I do next. I’ve put together this Frankensteinian Structure Mutant from the ideas of Larry Brooks, Dan Wells, Chuck Wendig, James Scott Bell, Jack M. Bickham, and tons of articles and blog posts. I’ll briefly explain what each point means to me, and if you like it and want to know more, click on the experts’ names above and read your heart out.

  1. Set up
    • what the situation is before shit starts hitting the fan
    • I use this to build the very first chapter, leading up to the inticing incident/hook
    • as a sidenote, I love the advice to “hit the ground running”, start with a “gripping action scene”; it sounds awesome, like something destined to work, but it’s a pile of horse manure. Most genre novels can’t start like that without making false promises they can never satisfy, or hitting things off at a pace they can’t possibly keep up with or escalate properly, so Thanks, but no thanks.
  2. Inciting incident
    • for me, this must be an action the protagonist takes, a decision she makes, etc. preferably a mistake born out of the protagonist’s very own nature
    • or it can be an external event happening (a war starts, a tornado hits, a car crash kills a loved one, etc.)
  3. Plot point #1 
    • the first point of no return
    • this should definitely be something the protagonist does or decides, and it must set her on a path she can’t back out of
    • this is different from the inciting incident (or hook), in that it initiates a sequence of events which inevitably leads to the climax, whereas the hook was only a promise of things to come, something that only asks questions but doesn’t yet indicate any clear direction
    • if it’s gotta be something external happening (or another character’s doing), which is NOT recommended (Who wants to read about a protagonist who is acted upon instead of acting herself?), then it must be directed at the protagonist; she can’t just get caught in it by circumstance
  4. Pinch point #1
    • the first thing that goes really bad, and smacks the protagonist right in the face
    • it’s usually something the antagonsit does, showing what a huge pain in the ass they are and how much worse it could all get
  5. Mirror Moment – or Pivot Point
    • I totally snatched this concept from James Scott Bell; he does such an awesome job of nailing down the true potential of the dreaded midpoint / middle / saggy baggy love-handled second act, that I simply can’t remove his vision from my thinking again. I’m sold.
    • the mirror moment is the moment when the protagonist realizes she must change herself, or change her strategy to win
    • it’s a moment when she reflects on her role in life, on her self-definition, and initiates the shift from past to future
    • OR it can be what Chuck Wendig calls a Pivot Point, a moment when the story the reader thought was about something, turns out to be about something much bigger and much more terrifyingly dangerously holy shit awesome
  6. Pinch point #2
    • The antagonist shows his full strength, and takes control of the situation
    • the protagonist seems doomed
    • you can spice this up with a personal crisis, and have the protagonist doubt herself and lose hope
  7. Plot point #2
    • the second great point of no return
    • it can be a critical piece of information that surfaces and helps the protagonist win; or it can be the protagonist remembering what she’s truly fighting for, refreshing her motivation in some way, discovering the power was within her all along –that sort of thing
    • but it doesn’t have to be a single moment; it can also be a sequence of failures, a descent into desperation for the protagonist who’s tried everything and is quickly running out of choices;
  8. Climax
    • the protagonist commits The Act *dun dun duuun* — that’s why I call the decisive action which ends the fight
    • and, of course, if there’s a Showdown with an antagonist, it’s in here (and it ends with The Act *dun dun duuun*)
  9. Resolution
    • a scene or chapter to wrap things up in a satisfying way

Of course, a story doens’t just have a plot. It also has at least one character arc.

Character Arc

In fact, there are at least 3 types of character arcs out there. But there’s only one esential thing they all boil down to: a transformation must occur.

Whether it’s the character who changes, the environment which she changes, or other characters who change in effect of her actions, but something has to change.

And that change has a very simple arc:

The character before the story –> Problem –> Realization –> The Act –> Transformation

That “realization” happens around the middle of the story. It can be about the protagonist herself, but not necessarily. It can also be related to the problem at hand, the conflict’s nature, the stakes, or the actions required to “win”.

But… does that arc remind you of something?

Set up –> First plot point –> Mirror Moment or Pivot Point –> Climax –> Resolution

That’s the gist of it: the protagonist’s character arc and the plot arc must overlap at the essential points. That will make the story come alive, and maximize its impact on the reader. The lucky part is, they overlap naturally. IF the story concept is clear, if you know what your core problem really is, and don’t just jump form one complication to another in an episodic “Woohoo, what’s next?” sort of fashion.

So that’s it.

I do all that before I start to write a novel.

I’ve not done as much when I started writing THE DEEP LINK, and it came back and bit me in the ass so hard, I’m still limping.

It may look like a lot of effort to those who don’t like planning things ahead, but trust me, it’s not more than a couple of critical questions and a brainstorming session (or two).

And if you nail your story concept from the get-go, know the highlights of your story’s structure and how to hit them just right, and overlap it all with a rich character arc, your story will kick ass right from the first draft. And you won’t have to kill your precious neurons with endless revisions, like I have.

Next time, if you like, I’m gonna address those ‘critical questions’ and explore the exploration itself a little. Cool?

Tüdelü!

 

19 Replies to “Concept, Structure and Transformation – How to plan a novel”

  1. Once again, you have hit the nail on the head.

    I’m working on my eighth book in the Alysian series and struggling to structure it. I was reading Larry Brooks and Chuck Wendig. You are absolutely right. If you don’t have these elements in place, you will be flailing around with a story that has no point or meaning.

    It’s better to set the clear path early than struggle forever later trying to fix things.

    Great advice. Thanks, Vero

    Like

  2. Yeah, I also wish I’d learned all these things years ago – I might not have churned out so many novels-that-only-got-as-far-as-Chapter-Five that way. And now I can bookmark this page, because it has everything I need to know (and REMEMBER) all in one place – yaay!

    I’ll definitely be needing it for Book II in my planned trilogy-in-progress (says she, as she continues to pick the sweetcorn out of her draft two of Book I that she DIDN’T write using all of the above useful advice… )

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Wendy. I’m glad you found this useful. It sure would have saved me quite a load of work if I’d have understood these things earlier, but I guess some things you can truly “get” only through practice…

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  3. I used to be a pure pantster, but it would take me two years or longer to finish a novel. I kept writing in circles, blowing up my manuscript and piecing it back together.

    I use the 7 point story structure, which is very similar to what you do. And I outline chapter-by-chapter (which I tend to veer away from the outline). I feel I still have the flexibility to go in different directions, but I still chart my course.

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    1. A bit of planning goes a long way, that’s the universal truth of writerhood. I’m just relieved I don’t have to write 3-4 (or more) drafts before the thing looks anything like a coherent novel. *phew* 🙂

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  4. I’ve had this tabbed for ages but harried to distraction not had time to read it until now. Thanks, Vero, I found it useful. As I read it past ‘failed’ novels swam into my mind. Others ticked the boxes and was I relieved! More to the point something I’m planning for September also came into focus. So, all in all, twenty minutes well spent 🙂

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  5. Hi Vero, I know all the resources you list — I love all of these great teachers of writing fiction — but you’ve managed to condense it into something so easy. I printed out this blog page the other day and sat down and used it to create a structure for my new novel. It may not be perfect, but it’s something, and it only took me a few hours, in which I felt like I could really discern the story idea from the story concept. It’s a start, but it’s a hopeful start for me. I can never remember the fiction techniques I read so often unless I apply them, and your blog has been another away to say the same thing I read, but in a way that I can remember 🙂 Thank you. And all the best with your writing.

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    1. Thanks a lot, Tamara! I’m glad you found my run-down useful. It’s been quite a steep learning curve for me, and condensing everything I’ve read along the way has helped me a lot. Glad it serves others too!

      Wish you the best of luck with your new novel. Have fun!

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  6. Like you, I’ve studied all of the authors mentioned above and many more ( about 50). Another solid book on story structure is Deb Dixon’s “Goal, Motivation and Conflict.” ( Griffin Press). But of them all Larry Brooks’ book “Story Engineering” is absolutely the best thing I’ve read on story structure. He makes it all so very clear. Larry says , in his book, to paraphrase: “If you get structure and concept it will change your writing life.” It did and for the better. He is right. All the other teachers dance around it while Larry nails it cold. I’m not a PR girl working for Larry– just a writer who has had a religions experience by way of Story Engineering.

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    1. I couldn’t agree more, Rachel. Truly getting what story structure and concept are about, how they sustain a story, how they define what is and what isn’t a compelling story, really does change the way you understand storytelling. It made a huge difference to me, and I’m ever grateful for that. 🙂

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  7. Stumbled across your post which searching for ways to condense the heaps of story structure information I have read. I think you can make things TOO complicated if you try to apply it all. Thanks for sharing your simplified structure that hits on all the major signposts.

    As for…

    “I love the advice to “hit the ground running”, start with a “gripping action scene”; it sounds awesome, like something destined to work, but it’s a pile of horse manure.”

    Take another listen to Dan Wells and his discussion of the Ice Monster Prologue. That’s how to pull it off. And yes, it can work in genre fiction!

    Like

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