A dear friend of mine (and coincidentally one of my bridesmaids) requested some tips on basic plotting and three act structure. I came into the conversation late and so my contributions to the conversation were a brick instead of "part of the conversation".
Anyway, what you are about to read is what I told her, but cleaned up. And I mean kind of cleaned up, expect this entry to be a little bit sketchy and less coherent than my usual blog entries. That's because it's actually a chat log that I repainted into a blog entry.
Still with me? Sweet, let's go.
First: Not everyone outlines. I know a lot of storytellers like to pretend it's the end all be all, but it's valid to be a discovery writer (I've also heard it called being a 'gardener' or a 'pantser' and what that basically means is...just write, no time for planning!). You're going to have to do just as much editing either way, I promise. Remember your first draft will not be perfect. Remember you will basically have to rewrite the whole thing at least once no matter what.
Now as to the rest;
-You want to know where you're going with it first. Decide on your ending early on.
-Once you have an idea of what kind of climax you want, you'll have an idea of what you need to build to. Scrawl down some ideas about that.
-Characters are always fun. I usually turn on music and pace around the room a little bit while I decide what I want to do to them and write down a list of loose unconnected ideas for scenes.
-Put those on index cards or in a notepad document and shuffle them around until they're in an order that makes some kind of vague sense.
-After that, after you have a list of what you REALLY want to do, start filling in what you have to to make those scenes make sense and give them context.
-Remember that 90% of plotting is about justifying where you are going with your plot. Those awesome moments that you want? You have to earn those.
We'll take the Big Dramatic Kiss as an example.
-First you need to introduce two characters.
--So say Character A is actually a heroic type, he's a little bit naive, he thinks he can fix the world.
--Character B is a heavy smoker and a bitter bastard and he's seen far too much in his short life to date.
--They're both 17.
--You want to give them both introductions that fit who they are and hint at their respective plot arcs, so you decide A needs a scene where he tries to step in and help someone getting mugged and he ends up getting knocked out and his wallet stolen.
--B on the other hand, is a bit more savvy, gets into a knife fight at his drug dealer's house then finds A passed out on the pavement outside afterward. He tries to just walk past and leave the kid to his moosey fate, but because he's actually a really decent guy deep down, he has to turn around and half drags the kid up to his apartment.
-You need to make the reader care about them.
--During the plot, they're snarking at each other. You set up patterns; "Character B always calls A 'kiddo' or 'sport' and A hates that".
--You set these patterns up so the reader goes "Oh shit" when you break them. When B uses A's name, you know shit is about to go down in a big way.
--Keep developing them as individuals while they grow into each other as people. A gets a little wiser. B gets a little nicer. A can't stand B's smoking and throws his cigarettes out the window and B goes absolutely ballistic about it because it wasn't A's decision to make. A learns something. B cuts back. Swings and roundabouts.
--You set up very real reasons why these characters can't be together; B owes a kingpin a lot of money and if he cares about A too openly, it's going to paint a target on A's chest and if he tells A about what the situation is, A is going to go off and get himself killed because it's just who A is.
--It's a perfect storm.
--By the time they end up handcuffed to a toilet together and A is trying to convince B that there's no need to break his wrist so they can escape certain death at the hands of gang violence, the reader is sitting there like "kiss before you die you foolish boys".
--Of course they don't do it here. You never let them kiss the first chance they get.
---The real rule here, is the big conflicts you set up? The big questions? The big moments? Give plenty of opportunities that they COULD happen and don't. It makes the payout better and gives you more scenes to work with.
--So later on when B has that broken wrist and A is trying to protect him and the house has caught on fire and that kingpin is pinned under a fallen fucking support beam and A is like 'but life is sacred' and then looks back and thinks about how many more innocents are going to suffer and finally decides for once in his life to do the sensible thing and let the man die...B grabs him around the waist and kisses him hard and heads back to save the man himself.
Write down ideas for scenes that:
1. You want to write. These are the most important ones they are the ones that will make sure you don't quit your book.
2. Connect those scenes logically and in sequential order. These are the scenes that provide continuity.
3. Establish patterns. So you can break them to pieces later.
4. Tease and foreshadow what is to come and leave the reader going "fuck you they should have kissed there" (but secretly being glad they didn't cause it would have been too fast)
And then once you have your outline be prepared to throw it away because inevitably around 45k someone is going to do something you didn't expect them to and derail the entire story.
Act 1 = Introducing your characters, settings, and establishing a theme. Everything you're allowed to use, your entire pallet, will be showcased in act 1. If your hero is going to use the Sword of 1000 Truths to kill the main bad guy, it had better at least be mentioned in Act 1. Every relevant setting, needs to be shown or alluded to in act 1 readers don't like being thrown into new places at the end of the book. Every relevant character. Act 1. You're introducing your protagonists, you're showcasing your backdrops, you're showing the stakes. If people die later in the book, show that they can die early on. If they're going to swear, let them swear here. At least hint that it can happen. Madoka Magica was 13 episodes long and by episode 3, we knew what kind of story it was. It would have been bullshit to spring that nonsense around episode 10.
Act 2 = Establishing patterns, doing subplots. Anything you want to do that's going to be kind of off the wall and sub-plotty goes here. You've introduced your characters, now make them real. Show who they are. Give them scenes to establish what their limits are. Go into more detail about your backdrops. Give the reader more of what content you promised in Act 1--because Act 1 WAS a promise. "This is a story about magical girls...and anyone can die". "This is a story about a crossdressing teenaged girl and a bunch of hot bishounen that are funny and will continue to be hot and funny through the whole story we promise". You've set your patterns up. Use them. Act 2 is a gift, you have the lines to color in and you have your pallet, but you can add whatever textures you want. Subplots! Twists! Exposition! Go nuts.
Act 3 = The meeting of the roads. It is TOO LATE at this point to add anyone new. Or anything new. You have to work with what you've got at this point. Now is the time to start wrapping everything up and tying up loose ends. At the end of the story, you get 1 twist. In fact, in most genres it's practically required. It's good to know from the beginning what this twist is going to be so you can hint at it along the way. Mimi, I don't have to tell you how to do this one, you're the master of it, I've seen you play. So you draw everything in like the mouth of a drawstring pouch, cinch it tight and do your ending. This is the crescendo baby. Sparks fly, you get the Big Damn Kiss, and THIS. This is the fun part because all those rules you set up for your characters?
You get to break them.
Megan R. Miller