The critique retreat for my writers’ group, Quill and Dagger, was held at the lovely home of Nancy Sartor on Saturday and was wonderful. It was a beautiful day, almost warm enough to sit outside on her spacious deck, but she’d put together a powerpoint, so we stayed inside.
She based her presentation on structure and used the concepts from the book STORY ENGINEERING by Larry Brooks.
In a nutshell, Brooks says a well-structured book will have an Opening Hook, a First Plot Point, a Midpoint, a Second Plot Point and an Ending. He throws in a couple of Pinch Points (which none of us had ever heard of) and WaLa–Book. Okay, maybe not quite that simple. Brooks compares the First Plot Point, Midpoint and Second Plot Point to three big meals. Mainstays of the day. Pinch points are like nutricious snacks between those meals to give energy and nurture. For something that seemed pretty bare-boned on the surface, it sounds plenty fattening now! Let’s see what you think.
We begin with an Opening Hook–we all know this. Brooks said the hooking moment needs to be within the first twenty pages of Part 1. However, our group agreed, in today’s market, it needs to be in the first page, if not the first paragraph, if not the first sentence.
According to Brooks a plot point depends on two things: the location within the story and the content shift it delivers to the story. He contends a plot point must not be introduced until the story has been properly set up, or the story will tank.
What is this set-up?
- A thorough introduction of hero including the hero’s backstory and inner demons (world views, attitudes, prejudices, and fears that define him and hold him back)
- Establish what the hero has at stake–what he/she has to lose
- Foreshadowing of events to come — The best foreshadowing is not recognized as such when it occurs.
- Set the pace and focus of the scenes to unfold to get to the first plot point
Brooks maintains the First Plot Point should occur at approximately 20 to 25% through the story.
Brooks’ definition for the first plot point: “It means what the hero thought was true may not be as advertised. It means safety and status quo are being threatened. It means everything must stop until this problem is addressed. It means dreams go on hold until this is solved, or it can mean that new dreams are suddenly within reach. It means survival, or not. Happiness, or not. Justice, or not. It means that the stakes are on the table now. The First Plot Point begins the hero’s new quest in pursuit of this need. It begins a response to whatever the First Plot Point brings to the party. It brings the sudden need for safety, for understanding, for relief, for an answer for a new approach, a new paradigm, a new set of rules.”
Our group checked his premise against the ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) of one of our member’s novels, and wa la, he was right on the money! According to Brooks, the FPP is the bridge between Parts 1 and 2 of a novel and everything that comes before it is a setup for the plot point and everything that comes after it is a response to it. Its mission is to shift the context of the story from setup mode to response mode. He says the story doesn’t really even start until Part 1 concludes with the first plot point. I know lots of people who’d argue with him and say if that’s the case, then start the story there.
Part 2 of the novel is all about the reaction. If the author has done a good job, the reader cares about the hero and wants to accompany him on his quest against the antagonist. Brooks says the reader must truly be vested in the hero and the hero’s fear to care what happens. He warns it’s too early for the hero to save the day. He can try, but it can’t work. Not yet. If he tries, he needs to learn something about himself and the antagonist (growth) he can use to fight back in a future attempt. Brooks suggests Part 2 consist of twelve to fifteen scenes.
The First Pinch Point comes in the middle of part 2. A pinch point is when the reader sees for him/herself the implications of the antagonistic force.
Next, he said a novel needs a context-shifting Midpoint, at precisely the middle of the story. This is the end of Part 2. Once again something new will enter the story and change the nature of the game for both the hero and the reader. This new knowledge can pertain to previously existing yet hidden information or to completely new info. Like a plot point, it can be considered a plot twist. But unlike other twists, which can appear without concurrent rrelevance or meaning to the story, a Midpoint changes things through meaning. “Through the revelation of what’s been, until this point, behind the curtain of awareness, the Midpoint empowers the hero in the transition from Part 2 wanderer to Part 3 warrior.” The Midpoint can deliver information.
Part 3 is where the hero needs to get down to business. It’s time for the author to deliver. Hook the reader with set-up and stakes promised in part 1 and deliver empathy garnered in part 2. Part 3 is where “the hero literally fights back, hatches a plan, enlists assistance, demonstrates courage, shows initiative. This is where he steps up. He evolves from responder to attacker. From wanderer to warrior.”
But in the middle of part three, Brooks throws in the Second Pinch Point. Like the hero, the antagonist has also evolved and has overcome his own weaknesses in pursuit of his own quest, so he is also stronger and more frightening. This increases the tension and ups the stakes
Second Plot Point is the final place to put new information into the story. It will be about 75% into the story and will separate parts 3 and 4. After this, according to Brooks, no new expository information may be introduced other than the hero’s actions. All narrative information to shift the story into resolution mode must be given by this point. Future story shifts have to be based on information currently known or some decision or action on the part of the hero. There was some discussion within the group about the introduction of new information after the second plot point. What do you think?
Part 4 is the beginning of the end of the story. Brooks says you have twelve scenes to wrap it up using the second plot point as the springboard for those sequences. I have know idea where he gets this number. The story has to be strong going into the ending. (Duh!)
Now, we’re to The Ending and, of course, there are rules. They are pretty basic, and either because our eyes were crossed, the snacks were calling, or we really agreed there was little discussion around how Brooks advocates ending a novel. Here are his Rules of The Final Act:
- Hero has to be the hero. Can no longer depend on others to come to the rescue
- Hero should demonstrate personal growth
- Hero should show creative thinking that makes the reader feel his heroism
- If the book is part of a series, current book has to stand alone!
Actually, we all whole-heartedly agreed with all four points.
My group agreed the take-away from the book is he’s on to something if his hypothesis is correct. He says if you use his method, you will have 30 to 40 scenes or about 2/3 of your entire story when you finish setting up the structure. “By planning for these pivotal milestone scenes, by grasping what they are and how they empower the flow of the story, and thus, understanding what types of scenes need to set them up, pay them off and connect them, you will have launched the architecture for well over half of your entire novel.”
What do you think? Sounds good to me.