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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Plot outline

   
Author Topic: Plot outline
Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I think this is an interesting way to approach outlining, but it might also be useful to check your already written stories against the plot points listed here.
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MattLeo
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I've read Blake Snyder's book SAVE THE CAT and used his beat sheet in the development of my novel, THE KEYSTONE. Later I edited out some of the plot points for brevity; sometimes what takes a single camera shot requires three or four thousand words. But once you allow for that, it works fine for novels, even though it's designed for screenplays.

Snyder's beat sheet is not a general solution to the problem of story structure, it's a template that makes sure you have all the story elements a Hollywood movie is expected to have. Since THE KEYSTONE was supposed to be the kind of story the old Hollywood screwball comedies told, it worked particularly well for me.

One particular element novelists can benefit from is the "B story", however it's not quite as simple as it sounds. The importance of the "B Story" is that it really brings out the themes of your story by reiterating them in a simpler parallel story. If you're going to attempt to use Snyder's beat sheet, I'd strongly recommend you get his book so you really understand what each "beat" is supposed to accomplish and how.

I did a post two years ago about B stories.

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rcmann
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I wonder how that recipe would apply toward a trilogy such as I am writing. When I scan it, I see a surprising parallel to the way I structured my first book without consciously planning anything. But book one stops before the culmination (obviously) or there would be no reason for the other two books.
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BenM
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Reviewing an existing story against a plot structure, as Kathleen suggests, can be handy - you're not constrained to painting by numbers, but you get a feel for whether you've placed enough structure in place to give the reader the ride you really intend. Tim's compilation of Snyder's points looks like a hybrid of traditional three act and the 7-point plot structures, though maybe that's just because plot structures are usually all trying to formalise the same thing: Compelling story.

For pre-planned trilogies I wonder whether simply stretching a single-story plot structure amongst the other books' plots (and subplots) can work.

Ie, using a* 7-point plot structure, where we have books 1,2 and 3 being plots a,b and c, and a series plot s, then might they be plotted as follows?

code:
Book 1
[ a1 a2 a3 a4 a5 a6 a7]
[s1 s2 ]

Book 2
[b1 b2 b3 b4 b5 b6 b7 ]
[ s3 s4 s5]

Book 3
[c1 c2 c3 c4 c5 c6 c7 ]
[ s6 s7]

I have to admit I've not quite tried this or weighed a published work against it, but there's an intoxicating simplicity to assuming that book 1 is The Beginning, book 2 is The Middle and book 3 is The End of a 3-act structure.

Yet it seems somehow simpler to just call The Empire Strikes Back a tragedy, rather than Scene 2 of a larger story.

* - simplistic and unrealistic, but merely for purposes of illustration -

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MartinV
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Amazing how my current WIP (Arena) does exactly what it says on this list. That's good, right?
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extrinsic
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Film, written word, stageplay compositions borrow across the mediums liberally. Strategies and methods that work in one medium applied to another may exhibit strengths or shortcomings. Film's strengths, visual and aural spectacle, dimensional presentation, camera obscura perspectives, and so on, illustrate written word and stageplay limitations turned to film strengths. Written word's up close and intimate narrative distance and intimate access to thoughts, strengths from film's limitations. Stageplays' emphasis on dialogue scenes and impressionistic backdrops, film limitations become stage strengths. And vice versa in clumsy hands.

Closely reading novels that became films and closely watching the films, obviously, the novels were written for ready translation to film. Up until about mid nineteenth century, stageplays were the pinnacle of dramatic arts. Novels emulated stageplays and derived from them. Nowadays, of course, films are preeminent and written word has come to emulate and derive from them. Novels have never enjoyed the preeminence of either, though for a brief era while film evolved early twentieth century, written word gave stageplays a run for the lead.

Film dramatic structure, for all its warts and wrinkles, attractions and sensibilities, parallels other mediums but distinguishably differs. Soundtracks substitute for artful tension engines, cinematic camera effects' emphases, too. More than structure meets the eye and ear. Music scores signal tense, intimate, or bridge scenes, where written word pacing and language do all the work. Camera effects, wide angle, foreshortened, close-up, and vignette, similarly signal emotional meaning, where written word does all the work.

Arranging a written word dramatic structure so it translates accessibly for film recognizes how the two mediums overlap, how they differ, how they stand up to interpretation. In times past, not so long ago, maybe mid twentieth century, audiences translated their entertainment experiences from real world to written word and back again to film's capturing real-world drama. Nowadays, translation begins from film referents. Well, like, you know, how Snookie female-dog slapped Nicole? My girl BFF Dee Dee give the tramp-stamped Sheila a four-one-one.

A quick camera head shot from an unconventional angle conveys freighted meaning. Written word expressing the same meaning might linger for a longer amount of narrative time yet pass the same amount of story time. Reaction shots often are quick snapshots, yet written word reactions to stimuli may linger for a longer time. Savvy audiences, savvy writers, read visual emotional cues from second nature. Converting them to written word challenges writers. This is most often seen in struggling writers' writing from a regular resort to static seeing, looking, glancing action descriptions, and sighing, to convey emotional meaning. The camera and the director (writer) intermediate the action, artlessly, in my sense of translating film's visual action to written word.

More than structure mitigates translating dynamic filmmaking practices to written word. Writing for both mediums diminishes both's potentials.

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rcmann
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quote:
Originally posted by BenM:
I have to admit I've not quite tried this or weighed a published work against it, but there's an intoxicating simplicity to assuming that book 1 is The Beginning, book 2 is The Middle and book 3 is The End of a 3-act structure.

That would be convenient, wouldn't it? Alas, I suspect that if you tried it that way, most people would toss book one down in disgust and never bother to look at two or three. remember that some people start trilogies in the middle. And some people read them in reverse order.

Extrinsic, I must respectfully disagree with the premise that film is preeminent over the written word. Especially given the current miserable lack of creativity in the film industry.

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Robert Nowall
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My plot outlines have varied considerably. I've tried a number of methods over the years, from file notes on background organized by chapter, putting three-by-five cards up on a bulletin board, or just plain writing on paper (or screen.)

My last novel outline led me into a disaster. I plotted things three chapters ahead, keeping the notion in my head that if I didn't know what would happen, the reader would be kept guessing. But then, after one hundred thousand words, I had no idea at all what would happen next.

Someday I'm going to have to dig it out and reread it and see if I could salvage anything. But for now, when I write something, I make minimal notes---and keep firmly in mind how it will end.

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Osiris
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I think some of my best work has come from outlining a story as if I'm driving to a destination at night. If you know where you started, you know where you want to end up, and can see far enough ahead of where you currently are to be able to write the next few pages/chapters, then you've left enough room for creative inspiration to hit you while not being completely derailed by it.
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rcmann
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I decide where the story will end, then figure out who the characters are and let them drive.
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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
Writing for both mediums diminishes both's potentials.

Agreed -- but you'd have to be extremely naive to think you could literally write a novel that would translate directly to a screenplay or vice versa.

The whole point of structure is to shape the story without restricting the kind of story you tell or how you tell it. You can write a serious drama or a farce using exactly the same structure. For that reason any reasonably articulated structural scheme can be made to work for a novel.

I chose the SAVE THE CAT structure because I wanted THE KEYSTONE to (subconsciously) evoke classic movie comedies by screenwriters like Ben Hecht, David Ogden Stewart and Robert Riskin. But I certainly didn't narrate the scenes as I would have for stage and camera direction in a screenplay.

Overall I found it worked quite well (as any reasonable structural scheme ought). I had little use for the opening image, but I found the sections "debate", "B-Story", midpoint (false high), "All is lost", and "dark night of the soul" all particularly useful for a comic novel. Again I'd urge anyone contemplating using this structure to read Snyder's book SAVE THE CAT, in order to get a real understanding of what each piece of the structure is supposed to do.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by rcmann:

Extrinsic, I must respectfully disagree with the premise that film is preeminent over the written word. Especially given the current miserable lack of creativity in the film industry.

Audiovisual media revenues at least double written word media revenues. Audiovisual media consumer numbers are at least three times written word media consumers, product consumption and time spent.

The film industry "creatively" markets to mass culture numbers that suits film's revenue hunger. The film industry's box office hits support art films, too. The written word industry is "creatively" evolving into niche markets in the digital age.

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MattLeo
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I don't know about "preeminence" of visual media over the written word, because I don't know what, precisely, that means.

I would make two observations on this question. The first is that we happen to be going through a crisis in publishing brought on in a change in the way many people choose to read. This is not unlike crises in the movie business when faced with the rise of television, or television with the rise of digital entertainment. So far no form of storytelling has gone extinct -- even *commercially* extinct -- as far as I know.

The second observation is that there some begging of the question going on here; we have to establish that there is some kind of opposition between visual entertainment and written. It seems to me that there's more of a symbiosis between the too. A large number of movies, and a disproportionate number of blockbuster hits, are based on books. Those that aren't often gain novelizations.

A typical pattern seems to be that you start with books by some author like George R.R. Martin or Charlaine Harris, you go to movies, TV shows, and mini-series, and from there you get a number of literary imitators.

Which is all healthy enough. What is a little disturbing to me is the number of writers who seem to get nearly all their inspiration from television -- sometimes a single identifiable series. There's always been a lot of derivative stuff in the bookstore, but it seems like there's more media-inspired stuff than there used to be.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
A typical pattern seems to be that you start with books by some author like George R.R. Martin or Charlaine Harris, you go to movies, TV shows, and mini-series, and from there you get a number of literary imitators.

Traditionally, the path was stageplay to novelization, and similarly, consequently imitations.
quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
Which is all healthy enough. What is a little disturbing to me is the number of writers who seem to get nearly all their inspiration from television -- sometimes a single identifiable series. There's always been a lot of derivative stuff in the bookstore, but it seems like there's more media-inspired stuff than there used to be.

Blessing or curse, television is currently the preeminent fount for inspiration. But then, in spite of market share competition and declining advertising revenues driving contentious interchanges between networks and content providers, satellite and cable, television remains the marketplace forerunner.
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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:Traditionally, the path was stageplay to novelization, and similarly, consequently imitations.

I wonder whether somehow I'm missing your point in some colossally obtuse way, because as far as I can tell the traditional path went the other way.

It's easy to think of examples of novels and short stories adapted to dramatic form going back to the 19th C. *Frankenstein* and *Dracula* spring to mind, both of which were adapted for the stage in the 1800s, and thence became silent films.

In the silent era of films I can think of a dozen well-known adaptations of novels right off the top of my head, starting off with *Frankenstein* and *Dracula* of course, and on to Alice in Wonderland, Rip Van Winkle, Little Women, Tom Sawyer, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Thief of Baghdad, and The Wizard of Oz (three times before the definitive 1938 talkie).

I've made a particular study of the 1930s film comedy as part of my research for THE KEYSTONE, and of the most successful films I'd say close to a third were adapted from novels or short stories: His Girl Friday, It Happened One Night, Love on the Run, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, My Man Godfrey -- all literary adaptions.

I simply can't think of *any* screen to novel adaptations prior to the 1970s, and if you discount writers stealing from Shakespeare I can't think of any stage to novel adaptations either. I'm not saying it never happened, I just don't think it was nearly as common as adapting written stories to stage or screen.

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extrinsic
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Stageplays not screenplays. A playwright wrote a play. The kinks were ironed out during production development before opening night debut. During the process, copyright pirates, known in the day as literary agents, spied on rehearsals, reproduced scripts, and sold their ill-gotten booty to other playhouses and playwrights, sooner or later, to newspapers and bookmakers. "Authorized" editions rarely made their way into print before knock-offs saturated the market. The process was changing by the time Mary Shelley published, as copyright laws with teeth emerged during the nineteenth century, though the first law was put on the books in the late seventeenth century.
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