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The Four Act Structure–Witches Brew or Scientific Formula?

 

formula1As a scientist, I became used to the idea of formulas. It was better if things didn’t die or blow up. I learned that you had to be precise, adding just the right amount of this chemical and that liquid to get the desired product. Maybe it was fake banana flavoring or the right mixture of agar to feed the sprouting plants in my Petri dishes. Once you knew the exactly correct formula to make things work a certain way, then you could “experiment” with the formula to see if you could make things better. And sometimes things died or burned me or fizzled out.

Writing books is the same. Formulas have their place. And it isn’t until we understand the formulas that work that we can tweak them, change and bend and twist them. Sometimes they snap. Sometimes they look better twisted. When writing, I probably look more like a witch at her cauldron rather than a scientist in a crisp white coat, but the end result feels remarkably similar sometimes.

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So this is the formula I use. It has evolved over the years from three acts to four, I’ve added in things gleaned from books or talks or blogs. I don’t know where it all came from at this point, and if I’ve taken it from you, please let me know so I can give you credit.

 

FOUR ACT STRUCTURE

ACT 1
Introduce main character (hero/heroine), their main flaw, the enabling circumstances, the opponent. The hero must be an ordinary person in this world who shows hero potential.
The life-changing or inciting incident near the beginning. (by 10%)
The lock in, or something terrible that ups the stakes just before Act 2.

LIFE CHANGING EVENT => CHOICE (around 25%)

ACT 2
The MC reacts to the life-changing event and seeks out an ally or is brought out by the ally. Ally must be established with a basic modus operandi that will qualify them to be the most well-suited person to help MC out of their predicament.
They make a plan, usu the MC’s not so great plan that sounds great but will ultimately fail because they think that they can remain the same and overcome their problem as they are. (We all want to be good enough now—but we aren’t.)
The MC struggles to hold onto flaw or not recognize it while still trying to react to the inciting, life-changing event. The MC and ally must have a confrontation.

HERO-ALLY CONFRONTATION AND FACE UP TO FLAW (around 50%)

MIDPOINT—MC recognizes main flaw. This is sometimes referred to as the the Moral Premise, where the protag stops working from a false moral premise and starts working from a true moral premise. Stan Williams has a book about this called The Moral Premise.

ACT 3
After recovering from the previous debacle, MC now fully allies with ally and prepares for the final battle/confrontation with opponent/antagonist. Of course, the opponents are rallying as well, so the stakes are increased because there are more bad guys doing more bad stuff.
By the end, it appears that failure is inevitable.

RESOLUTION OF FLAW THAT ALLOWS HERO TO CONFRONT ANTAGONIST UNENCUMBERED BY FLAW (around 75%)

ACT 4
Hero, now completely unencumbered by flaw, literally or metaphorically battles the opponent to overcome and triumph. Return to new equilibrium with better hero. (around 90%)

And because I’m a hopeless romantic, hopefully they get their HEA as well. (100%)

THE END (of the book but never the story)

 

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There are always many ways to change this, make it unique, own it.

There are an infinite number of ideas out there waiting to become books.

I’d love to hear what kind of plotting devices you use!

2

One of My Crit Partners is Soft (ware) . . .

But man is it hard on me!

One of my living, breathing CPs introduced me to the marvel of software designed to improve your writing. There are some caveats, I’ll admit.

~ It will never replace the creative, human editor inside you that feels what’s right to write.

~ They never catch everything.

~ Occasionally, they catch the wrong thing.
frtiz-the-dog-2

Automation issues aside, they’re still incredible tools to get the best self-edit out there. Then the human CPs can catch even more mistakes without wading through the obvious ones. (I know, I know, I have seventeen “blue”s in the first three pages.)

There are several programs out there, and each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, but overall, they have tightened my writing tremendously. One of the great things about them–most are free for small samples. If you write novels like I do, you’ll quickly become frustrated with the limitations of the free versions, but the main benefit is that you can try it and see if it’s something you’re interested in.

My two favorites are AutoCrit and ProWritingAid.

Hope this helps!

 

autocrit

How it works . . .

You can upload a file or cut and paste into the window, then click analyze on the report of your choice. You can run a variety of reports on the uploaded text: pacing an momentum, dialogue, strong writing, word choice, repetition.  My favorite sub-categories are overused words, cliches, passive voice, and repetition. There are so many. It’s designed by a writer for writers.

Once the analysis is done, you can go into the text and modify it, then immediately re-run the report to see the improvements.

autocrit page

What I like . . .

I love the immediate satisfaction of improvement. This can be taken too far, though. Another benefit (for those of us who tend to be obsessive–yes my had is raised) is that it gives you an average amount of “acceptable” infractions. No manuscript will be free of some passive voice, an extra “very” or “just”, but this gives a percentage per word count and even gives you a “Good job!” so you can pat yourself on the back.

I also feel like it analyzed a bit better than ProWritingAid. I haven’t been using it nearly as long though, so I’m not sure.

What I don’t like . . .

You can only use it in an online dashboard. No wifi=no AutoCrit. I like to go on retreats, so this becomes difficult for me when I’m out in the middle of the woods, writing at the beach, or at a monastery at the SCBWI Advanced Writer’s Retreat.

I also don’t like the hassle of cutting and pasting back into my manuscript. But that’s really just me whining a bit.

Cost . . .

Levels of memberships range from $5-$12/month to analyze various lengths of material at a time. The Gold, or lowest membership, allows 1,000 words at a time. The Premium, or highest membership, allows unlimited words as many times as you want.

Go To AutoCrit Now

 

prowritingaid

How it works . . .

ProWritingAid is an add-on to your word program, so it works inside the file you already have. You select the text inside your file, go to the toolbar always available, and run the report. You can run all the reports together, and this feature is superior to AutoCrit. Seeing all the issues with a sentence saves you from having to fix the same sentence twice for two different mistakes.

As with AutoCrit, you can immediately re-run the report, but it takes longer if you run them all at once. (Whining again. We’re talking about fifteen to twenty seconds.)

ProWritingAid_ProductReview_-_Google_Docs1-590x305

What I like . . .

Your text is always there, ready to be analyzed as soon as you finish a chapter. No need to upload or cut and paste, and the text is always right where you left it. To stop the editor, all you have to do is click a button and it erases all the highlights and marks in the text, leaving what you’ve changed. Viola!

It has different colored highlights for the different reports, which is nice.

What I don’t like . . .

It doesn’t catch everything. I had “you’re” and “your” slip once. A couple other things. The format isn’t as pretty, but whatever.

Cost . . .

The free version allows 19 writing reports, no interactive editing, online use only, maximum 3,000 words.

Premium is $40/year and allows interactive editing, use with MS Word or Google Docs, has no word limit, and includes more reports.

Premium + is $45/year and includes all of Premium as well as 50 plagiarism checks per year.

Go To ProWritingAid Now

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Don’t Beat Yourself Up

This is my new goal for 2015–not to beat myself up for not writing more. Perhaps it sounds lazy, but I have to let it go.

At the November Kansas SCBWI conference I met an amazing woman, an agent of Red Fox Literary named Karen Grencik–one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. I had the pleasure of eating breakfast with her at our hotel, and she gave me advice that rivaled that of my nurse while giving birth to my first child who said, “This too shall pass.” And everything does, whether we like it or not.

What a blessing this sweet lady was in my life!

Karen Grencik, Red Fox Literary

Concerning writing, Karen said–and I’m paraphrasing–“You’re doing your very best every day, so don’t beat yourself up over it.” And she was/is right. I am doing my very best every day. I go to bed exhausted, wake up tired, never take naps, rarely take free time even for lunch, and I still have days where it’s impossible to find time to write more than a couple sentences.

This is where the Margaret Atwood quote comes in. For every word after every word after every word I write, I will feel success. I should feel success. For one sentence, if that is the best sentence I can write.

So here’s to a year of words, one after another. Let’s keep them coming!

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Writing Irresistible Kidlit, by Mary Kole

My rbain brain is so cluttered with amazing information, I don’t know where to begin.

This book covers many areas of the writing craft, from the mind of your audience to theme to emotion to many words I’ve never heard. This book made me feel a bit illiterate in some ways–mostly French ways–and I had to use the dictionary. Every chapter in this book gives ideas and questions and direction about how to go about forming the structure for a knock-your-socks-off novel. (Cliches are also included in Kole’s discussion.)

I could not recommend this book highly enough. It makes you reevaluate characters, themes, plots, and teaches you about Interiority, Objectives, how to incorporate subplots for the most impact, and many other elements of writing the perfect (or as close as us mere humans will ever get) novel.

mary kole

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Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass and #WM goals

I’ve been talking with a few people about books that help us all become better writers. My firm belief is that nothing helps us learn to write more than reading with an analytical eye. Quantity is as important as quality. The bad ones are as telling about how not to write as the good ones teach us correct principles. But there are some books that changed the way I looked at writing. This is one of them: Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass.

breakout novel donald maassThere is the book to read and the workbook that helps you put his ideas into action.

He gives practical advice on why your book might not be selling, and whether you’re going self-pub or traditional, most of us care about making money for our effort. Some ideas include taking things to the limit and having conflict on every page.

While I think that a lot of what Maass says about how to write is driven by his opinions, he is one of the leading agents in the industry and has a lot of experience with what gets published and what doesn’t. Listening to his advice is worth something. And writing exercises can be painful, but nothing comes free.

#WriteMotivation Goals for Week 1:

Here are my February goals:
1) Read one book every week, one of which is about how to improve my writing.

Week 1: I am half-way through The Alchemyst, by Michael Scott and half-way through Writing Irresistable Kidlit, by Mary Kole.

2) Post on every member’s blog once per week.

Week 1: DONE

3) Send out 15 agent queries.

Week 1: Nothing yet.

4) Do not get depressed when I am rejected.

Week 1: N/A

5) Finish final edit of TPR.

Week 1: Chapter 18 of 32. I feel good about this.

6) Outline all of TGM. Decide on POV and tense for TGM.

Week 1: Have to finish 5 first.

GOOD LUCK TO ALL MY #WRITEMOTIVATION FRIENDS! I will be seeing you again this week. And I bought Girl Scout Cookies.