Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Plotting the Second Half, Pt. 3

If you've been following this blog you've probably realized that I have slowed waaaay down on my posts, and I have NaNoWriMo to blame for it. I whizzed along for the first ten days thinking I could toss off this little 50,000-word exercise without breaking a sweat. When I hit mid-point in the novel those 1667 words per day began to come a lot harder.

Third Act Doldrums
So I called up a lady who knows a thing or two about plotting. Jamie Morris runs the Woodstream Writers Group in north Florida. I put the question to her: In a four-act structure, what the hell is supposed to happen in Act 3? Your character has bottomed out. She has to make it from that deep hole to the climax. Additionally, we're supposed to be right in the middle of "fun and games" as Blake Snyder puts it in his excellent book on plotting screenplays, Save the Cat. Where's my fun? Where's my games?

Here's what Jamie had to say:

Morris: Plotting with a
magnifying glass.
"In the four-act structure you get to hold up a magnifying glass to Act 3 and really see what's going on. In a way, it's like you're dividing the traditional Act 3 in half, so you can really examine it. But essentially with four-act or three-act we're talking about the same thing. So I am holding up my magnifying glass, and I'm seeing that there's a place where the character has struggled to use their skills to resolve their problem, and that's not working for them.

"The character has a choice here. She can either change for the better, find a way to work in this new world, or she can continue to resist change. But the point is, there are still struggles, there is still learning in Act 3. So to answer your question about maintaining tension, one answer is: I get to see the character engaged in that struggle with change. Just because she has a clue doesn't mean she knows how to use that clue, right? Even as she's struggling, she's getting traction, she's gaining on her problem.

"And then at the end of Act 3, your character reaches a turning point. It might be something exterior in the action of the plot that forces a reversal (*Gail's note: this is what Joyce has called the "curve ball"). What might differentiate the "low point" at the end of Act 2 is that the change there is internal--some people call this the "All is Lost" moment. And perhaps the change at the end of Act 3 is external ('The Dark Night of the Soul').

"The important thing is that this turning point at the end of Act 3 sends the character rushing toward the great climax of the book. Which happens somewhere in Act 4. Capiche?"

Um, yes. Of course, all these structures are models to play with, to make your own. The idea of struggle within competency is a good way to manage it: Think Rocky running up those steps at the Philadelphia museum. Not so easy, right? So many steps! Are your characters struggling, NaNo-ers? And Non-NaNo-ers? How do you sock it to them?

And here's a little something to inspire you for the second half of your writing November:


  1. This is great! Lots to think about...glad I have the Rocky video to help me get revved up :)

  2. I struggle with keeping the middle and late middles relevant to the story as well. Usually though the end is in sight, so there is some motivation for me as the writer to get to the end. But reversals and curveballs are tricky to incorporate well, so it's understandable to want to take your time at this key moment in your wip. Best of luck!

  3. Yes, I've always called this the black moment or the point of no return. The character has hit bottom and either stays there (which they can't) or changes and starts kicking butt -- at least in my stories. :P

    Great info.

  4. Gail, I am reading the Plot Whisperer at the moment and trying to apply it to picture books. It is so interesting reading your Nano posts and then seeing if I can apply that in any way to a PB, with only say around 125 words per Act :)

  5. Why is it that all this advice makes so much sense when you read it, but then is so hard to actually apply? :)

  6. This is great!!! I am really thankful for your advice, and the fun video. Thanks to your post, I realize I am actually near the right place in my story. My MC just had a revelation that will push him towards making the right choice . . . but it's going to be a long uphill battle from here for him as a character. Thanks for the extra oomph!!! I love how Rocky's fans follow him on his run and up the steps.

  7. Save the Cat is an excellent book, and this description of Act 3 is very helpful. I hope you can push through it and reach your month's goals!

  8. I'm comfortable with writing the 1st and 3rd acts, it's that pesky middle that gets me every time.

  9. What a cool blog.....taking a look around.



  10. Good advice. I'm still struggling a bit with learning story structure, so posts like this really help!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  11. Glad I'm not the only one who struggles with structure discrepancies! : )

  12. I struggle with middles too. I've just started reading Martha Alderson's The Plot Whisperer, and she does a wonderful analysis of why middles are so difficult.

  13. @Mrs. Seraphina and Joanna: I definitely will look at The Plot Whisperer; it sounds really useful.

    I'm well past mid-point now, barreling into Act 4 and the climax, as the NaNo clock runs out. Thank you all for your comments and good luck with your middles!