Last time I wrote about discovering you want to write a story that's actually worth reading. The next obvious question is: "How the hell do I do that?"
That, my friend, is the right question (I, Robot rules.) Finding the answer--according to Malcolm Gladwell--requires ten thousand hours of study and practice. I'm only a third of the way there, but after assaulting every neuron in my stubborn brain with tips, classes, and books on writing fiction, I've come to view it as a two-part process: What to write, and How to write it.
What to Write:
For me, this is the harder of the two areas.
I've known instinctive writers; perennial best-sellers who can sit down with nothing more than a ball-point pen and a rough idea. Two months later, they've magically produced a taut, engaging plot, complete with unexpected twists and spot-on timing. To me, they're like people who naturally look good on the dance floor; folks who close their eyes, feel the music, swing their hips...and the result is sexily (that's a real word, right?) wonderful.
If you'd seen me trying to 'Do The Hustle' in seventh grade, you'd know that isn't me.
Part of growing older is accepting your limitations. I'm blessed in many ways (thank you, Mr. or Ms. Higher Power, whomever You are.) But I submit that when it was time to hand out the genes for freestyle dancing and seat-of-your-pants writing, I got screwed. So, as much as I resisted at first, I've come to adore the three-act structure.
I don't know whether my favorite authors (Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard, and *Steve Ulfelder *literary crush alert) consciously use a template. But when I read their books, I watch for the 'beats' I know are coming: Setup, Catalyst, B-story, Midpoint (stakes are raised), Bad Guys Close In, Dark Moment, Climax, and Conclusion. (Beats condensed/adapted from Blake Snyder's Save the Cat.)
In my genre, Catalyst, Mid-point, and Bad Guys Close In beats generally require dead bodies. Count on someone we care about getting hurt/dying at the Dark Moment, whereas B-story and Climax beats show our protagonist first appearing to win, then actually winning.
The value of a formula for writers like me is this: With (lots of) practice, the moves begin to appear natural. Like dancing in front of a mirror, using the three-act, fifteen-beat structure helps me see where tension dribbles off, where the plot drifts aimlessly from scene to scene with no suspense in sight. There are (strong) suggestions for how long each section should be, and this, too, helps with timing.
Best of all, I don't waste time writing scenes that end up in my computer's recycle bin.
To construct the outline, I write a short synopsis of each chapter (Witness X dies) on an index card and stick it on the cork board on my office wall. Keeping the 'beats' in mind, I shuffle the cards around until I've found where they belong, then note where the story is too short (or long), and whether I need to add to one of the sections. This is usually where I kill someone. (How many jobs allow you to say that and still walk around free?)
Using a template is like checking that funky chicken move in your bathroom mirror before unveiling it on the dance floor at your class reunion. Does it look as good as you think? No? That's how well the flashback-to-childhood scene in the middle of the Climax beat works...which is to say, it doesn't.
But thanks to guys like Blake Snyder (who passed away in 2009) and gals like Alexandra Sokoloff, people like me have the equivalent of plastic footprints stuck to the floor, and even those of us who dance like we're having a grand mal seizure can appear graceful.
Next I'll talk about the part that does come (somewhat) naturally for me: How to Write It.