Tag Archives: Story arc

I got carded

I knew going in, the hardest part of writing a novel would be keeping it straight in my head. News articles, poems, short stories are all manageable because you can hold the entire thing in mind at once. The beginning, middle and end are clearly laid out and the story arc is easy to visualize– setup, buildup, payoff. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

Not so the novel.

I have a storyboard, post-it notes, 2 Save the Cat Beat Sheets, 2 hero’s journeys, more character sketches than I know what to do with, stacks of 3×5 cards for characters and conflict strategies and immutable laws of story physics and mixed drink recipes… and none of it worked to organize my story into an intelligible whole— until now.

Last week’s Is Life LIke This? assignment was to have a couple of six packs. And I got carded.

I wrote up 6 scenes that absolutely have to be in the novel, jotting down 6 key elements of each: characters involved, mood, tone, conflict, etc. (See last week’s post A Couple of Six Packs.) Because it was such a jumbled mental mess, I wrote them on index cards. And that was the key.

I started arranging those index cards on the table, and all of a sudden I saw the whole story at once. Opening, first and second plot points, midpoint, climax, finale. Plus I made cards for 3 bonus scenes!

I printed out everything I’ve written so far that seems to belong, which actually totaled over two dozen scenes, each one in a different color to keep them separate. Now I’m ready to arrange them, probably on the floor, starting with the main six, then filling in the rest where they might go.

Dufresne is anti-outline, and even reiterated “we’re not outlining here” in this chapter. BUT, taking the time to create just that little mini-outline set of index cards, has given my novel a backbone. Suddenly the grab-bag of drunken randomness I’ve been writing is starting to look like a body.

indexcardskirtIs not outlining what you call being a pantser? If so, I need to change into a skirt because my thighs are seriously beginning to chafe. Anyway, now that my story’s got legs, why not show them off?

Do they make skirts out of index cards?


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A couple of six packs

Tonight is my weekly 3 hour binge writing session. Punk and the kids will be gone, the house will be quiet, the beer will flow like wine… and I don’t have a clue what to write.

Finally in Is Life Like This?, I am directed to organize 6 key scenes:

  • opening
  • first plot point
  • midpoint
  • second plot point
  • climax
  • finale

Yay, right? It’s almost like outlining!

Except I feel like a kid who’s been told “you can go outside and play,” only to discover I’m allergic to grass. I just got out of jail, but there’s no one to pick me up and drive me away. I finally finished my chores and can go to the ball, but by the time I get there it’s last call and Prince Charming is soused.

DrunkPrinceWhew, glad I got those horrible metaphors out of the way.

Dufresne’s next suggestion is to add texture to the 6 scenes (which I haven’t even chosen yet because I’m so stinking confused about what the heck this novel is even about anymore).

By “adding texture,” he means to look at each scene and ask 6 questions:

  • what is it doing? advancing plot, revealing character, expressing theme, establishing tone, amplifying earlier images?
  • what event is happening?
  • what is “the controlling emotion”?
  • how is it structured? (the scene itself, or how it fits into the overall structure? IDK)
  • add setting details
  • where’s the tension? heighten it.

Wish me luck.

Beat Sheet for a novel

Last week I reread To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway and thought it’d be interesting to “beat it out,” as Blake Snyder would say in Save the Cat. Snyder’s beat sheet (available gratis on his website) is a one page synopsis of a movie that lists page numbers for each act break and important plot points in the story arc of a 110 page script.

It looks like this:



1. Opening Image (1): Establish setting, introduce hero

2. Theme Stated (5): What question does the story ask?

3. Set-Up (1-10): Introduce all A Story characters and the “before” world of the hero

4. Catalyst (12): Introduce the problem the hero faces

5. Debate (12-25): The hero doesn’t immediately solve the problem. Rising action

6. Break into Two (25): Shift to middle section.

7. B Story (30): Introduce B story characters

8. Fun and Games (30-55): Wacky hijinks, love story, car chases, etc. Scenes for the trailer.

9. Midpoint (55): Something happens to get the A story momentum going again

10. Bad Guys Close In (55-75): Everything that can go wrong will go wrong

11. All Is Lost (75): It’s over, the hero is never going to make it

12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-85): The hero mopes

13. Break into Three (85): The hero is revived, finds courage or hope or whatever, new day.

14. Finale (85-110): The hero rescues the girl, finds the treasure, saves the day, etc.

15. Final Image (110): Reverse of opening image that demonstrates the hero’s change

Act 1

I wanted to know how the page numbers would line up for a novel which has twice as many pages. If a screenplay breaks into Act Two on page 25, does that mean the novel gets 50 pages?

As it turns out, the answer was: not necessarily. Instead of an exact doubling of each section, I found the Set-up and Finale sections (beginning and end) of a novel are still relatively short. In fact, Hemingway sets up the story pretty well in the first 10 pages. The Beat Sheet indicates 15 pages for the Finale, and Hemingway wrote exactly 15 pages in the final section of To Have and Have Not.

Some things did take longer in the novel. The Break Into Two came at page 57. That’s pretty close to double the 25 pages a screenplay allows for. Where the novel uses up the most pages is during the Fun and Games section, the B story, and because Hemingway was a depressed SOB, the Dark Night of the Soul and All is Lost Moments.

This whole side trip into reading Hemingway and Save the Cat has been my real life B story, and the past week and a half have definitely been Fun and Games. Tomorrow I go to a hotel for a writing retreat, where I will write through the Midpoint and into the second half of my novel.

Hopefully no Bad Guys Close In.

related: Beat Sheet: To Have and Have Not