Started to feel today that my writing is about to veer off into the wilderness, which is a tad worrying. Obviously, you should know what your novel’s about before you start, that goes without saying. According to legend, you should also be able to sum up the story in a sentence and try to stay focused on it while you’re writing, to keep you on track. Not the plot, as in A meets B, C happens and it goes horribly wrong, then D turns up and everyone lives happily ever after (blimey, I wouldn’t read that story would you?), but the theme underpinning the story; the meaning you want to explore, the message you’re hoping to share, the answer to the question that compelled you to write the sodding thing in the first place, so that a conversation with a Top Agent might (in a parallel universe where you meet Top Agents face to face) go something like this:-
Top Agent - So… what’s your book about?
Writer 1 - It’s a tale of self-discovery via the medium of reality television.
Top Agent – Hmmm. Interesting. Writer 2, what’s your book about?
Writer 2 - It’s a coming of age story, with vampires.
Top Agent - O-kay. Writer 3, tell me about your book?
Writer 3 - It’s about love, loss and redemption in the Arctic circle.
Top Agent – Right. And Karen?
Me - Um, well, it’s a cautionary tale about trying to be something you’re not. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds, I promise. Or…it might be about a woman’s journey from Geek to Goddess and back again. I’m not sure. It keeps changing.
Top Agent – I think you’re losing the plot, dear. I’m going with the vampires.
I know a theme doesn’t have to be set in stone, that it can develop and evolve as you go along, but it bothered me that I’m not entirely sure any more. Does it matter? Should I stop until completely clear about what the blimmin’ heck it is I’m trying to say, or go with the flow and hope that the mist clears along the way? Maybe I’ll end up with a completely different meaning, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as there is one. Sigh.
Luckily, there’s a great “check-list” I came across a while back, by author Stephanie Lehmann, that I'm compelled to refer to at moments like this (yes I've had them before). A bit like a shopping list. “Ah yes, I nearly forgot the conflict.” It usually does the trick.
Romantic Fiction, 8-part structure
The eight-part structure works like a timeline. Remember, it does not need to be slavishly adhered to. Use it as a guide to the extent that it helps you conceive your book.
1. The set-up. The beginning of your book sets up who the main character and what she wants. Both her outer need (an action in the world, like a career or ambition) and her inner need (her feelings, her psychology) are established. The outer need is what the heroine thinks she wants, and the inner need is what she really wants.
2. The love interest. Our main character meets the guy who is going to make her suffer for most of the rest of the book. Or do they already know each other? If so, what’s wrong with the relationship, and why can’t they take the next step, whatever that is.
3. The stakes. Opportunity presents itself. Something happens that makes the situation more exciting. The main character’s expectations are raised. Her inner problems (what are they again?) make whatever is going on in her life become even more intense. And/or… something happens in her outer life that makes her inner problems more intense.
4. She rises to the occasion. Most likely, she is experiencing early success. Things seem to be going her way. She seems to be achieving her outer need.
5. Things start to go wrong. The antagonist makes things more difficult for the main character. Her inner need may be preventing her from achieving her outer need. You are weaving together the storylines so that they all are inevitably crashing towards…
6. The Crisis. Everything falls apart. The antagonist seems to have prevailed. Your heroine hits rock bottom. She is losing everything. Her love interest doesn’t want her. The worst happens. I like to have a crisis in mind from the beginning – a scenario in which I can imagine everything that I’ve been setting up going wrong. It needs to be the “right” crisis, in that it needs to be an event that helps the heroine learn something about herself.
7. She takes a risk. Your heroine does something extreme, acts totally unlike herself, goes beyond the call of duty, does “the right thing,” finally tells the truth… She is facing down her demons.
8. The resolution. Our main character has changed – or, in a more Chekhovian ending, perhaps she just learns to accept the highly imperfect way she is. Or perhaps a mixture of both. In any case, she either ends up with the guy or she doesn’t.
Phew, I feel better already.
(If you’re not writing romantic fiction, forget I said anything.)