An Education In Craft

That first summer I worked with Paula on editing my manuscript, I read more than I wrote. Some of the books I read were helpful, and still sit on my shelf for future reference or inspiration. But the three that really stood out for me were Larry Brooks’ Story Physics and Story Engineering, and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. All three point out how to plot a storyline—that’s right people. That’s when I left behind my “pantser” ways and became a “plotter.”

Okay, maybe not totally, but at the very least I added plotting into my wayward pantser process.

Books on the craft of writing marketable fiction seem (in my limited experience) to take one of two positions: a three-act plan or a four-part plan. Vogler takes the first; Brooks takes the second. If you are familiar with the great American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, you’ll understand the concept of the Hero’s Journey. That’s the structure that underlies Vogler’s planning tactics. And it works. I can see it in every book and movie (try watching Star Wars or the Matrix series without seeing the Hero’s story arc). It’s a timeless, classic method of storytelling that really works.

Brooks’s four-part plan in Physics and Engineering is essentially the same thing, just broken down differently. He teaches that the writer needs four major plot elements: a hook and three major plot points where everything changes for the protagonist. But he still breaks it down to the hero’s journey: the hero’s world changes, the hero reacts, the hero takes an active role, the hero succeeds, even if success doesn’t look anything like what she expected. Of course I’m oversimplifying here; the point is that there is a “formula” (I know, that’s a dirty word for pantsers) that works. What’s important to remember is that following a formula does not mean the story has to be predictable or boring.

For me, it’s sort of like using a map to plan a trip—it shows all the routes available to get a traveler from point A (her starting point) to point B (her destination). Once she knows her options, she can then select the route most suitable for her purpose. For a direct trip, perhaps interstates would be best. However, if she wants a scenic journey, the traveler might choose the most roundabout path. Either way, knowing the route ahead of time helps her to plan effectively.

It’s the same with writing a story. From the starting point (Scene 1, my hook, how my book will begin), I decide how I want my story to end. That final scene is my overarching goal, my objective. Knowing this helps me to aim my story’s course with every scene, every action and word from every character pointed in the right direction for maximum impact.

That doesn’t mean my characters can’t divert onto side roads, as long as those detours tie in to the main storyline in some meaningful way. Remember: publishing houses have very specific expectations on word count. Too many detours without meaningful connections waste those precious words that might otherwise be used to tighten and embolden the hero’s main journey. They detract from the reader’s focus. How many books have you read where the writer seemed to meander from the main plot without any rhyme or reason? Did you love it or hate it?

Think of it this way. An archer can’t really be effective without a target. That’s what a beat sheet (one of Brooks’s plotting tools) does: it offers a series of targets at which the writer can aim her scenes.

I said in a prior post that my old ways of writing left me not knowing from moment to moment what any given character would do, or how, or to whom. Having a beat sheet is, for me, like having a story skeleton, onto which I can then layer the flesh of characterization and scenes and twists. Without the underlying structure, the rest becomes a shapeless blob. I even use it for short stories now.

I won’t say plotting is easy. It ain’t. What I can say with confidence is that Brooks’ method of pre-planning through a “beat sheet” has been an incredible help for me! (Larry Brooks also has a blog called “Story Fix.” Check it out at http://storyfix.com/ to see more of his instructional writing.)

There are a ton of books out there on the craft of writing, and just as many on technique. If you’re looking to learn more, shop around. Read the reviews. Then check one out from the library. If you like it, buy it—mostly to support the writer, but also because you’ll want to keep it around for later reference. Just remember that every writer has her own process, her own style. Even if none of the books offers a usable recipe, you will have learned the necessary ingredients to create your own, one that will fit with the publishing industry’s wish list. And for those of us seeking publication through traditional avenues, that’s as good as the recipe for the philosopher’s stone.