The perennial debate about “the best way to write” between writers misses a fundamental point.
It’s not binary.
Pantsing a book, or writing by the seat of the pants, espouses a free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness approach that implies absolutely no thought of character or story arc, just a meandering flow of words that somehow, magically, produces a story.
Plotting, as the name suggests, espouses a very structured approach to story writing. Every plot point is known. There are no surprises for the writer. Plotting takes up as much, or more, time than the actual writing.
But it’s not binary.
Not a single pantser sits in front of their keyboard, no idea where they want the story to go.
And not a single plotter knows every word/every scenario they will experience.
I identify as a plotter, so it’s best I explain from the plotter’s point of view.
I really plot the hell out of a story. I write crime-fiction, so I don’t understand how it is possible to do it any other way. I know what the crime is before I start writing. I know who did it, who looks like they did it, who couldn’t possibly have done it, but knows who did it, how it was done, why it was done and the drips of clues necessary so the reader doesn’t feel cheated when the killer/extortionist/whatever is revealed.
But that plotting is 1) maybe thirty words per chapter and 2) only extends to the first two acts. Until I’ve written those two acts, the sum total of my plotting for Act Three is what the first chapter in the third act needs to convey and what happens in the last chapter.
For each of the chapters in Acts One and Two, I write a few sentences indicating what the chapter needs to achieve (the below are from “Number Fifteen“):
“Team scours Andy’s last 48 hours — or at least starts the process. Split in the team — youth think cops should do the job, older know that’s not going to be enough”
“Terry and Kat are decoys for Jason/Rhonda attack. Dan and Stew and Andy show up and it’s a full on battle. Curious fight, no winners on either side.”
“It’s an ambush — the slap back from The Organisation. Back at home the Organisation attacks Andy’s house — Andy back in the hospital, Kelly is taken.”
Sometimes the note for a chapter (typically in Act One) is:
“Leave blank for future use”
This is to allow for additional information that may be needed to resolve the story — things that come up in Act Three.
The sentences above (not the “leave blank” one) result in 2000 – 3000 words per chapter. I have only a general idea of what those words are before I write them. I essentially pants the chapter within the constraints of what that chapter needs to be.
So don’t fight, people. Both are legitimate ways of writing.
For the past twelve years, I’ve been honing my writing skills, publishing (at the date of this publication) one non-fiction book — you’re reading it — and eighteen novels.
I write mostly crime fiction. A couple of sci-fi books are in the mix, but the overall gist is crime.
Private Investigators in Australia.
Telecommunications Engineers in far-flung parts of the world sticking their noses where they shouldn’t.
A millionaire Irishman solving mob-related crimes in South Florida.
A young Australian actress, trying her damnedest to make a living in La-La-Land.
When I started, I knew nothing about CREATING a story. I’d read thousands by then. Some were great, some were awful, and most were just good.
I started writing my first book, Matt’s War, with an interesting concept, believable characters, and no idea how it would end. I knew there should be a beginning, middle and end, but I had no idea what should happen in each of those three parts, what triggered the transition between them, and how much of the story each of those parts made up.
“Common sense” says the beginning is a third of the story, the middle is a third, and the end is a third.
Turns out, no.
I had a general idea of how the book should go. I definitely knew how it started. The rest, well, I trusted it would work itself out.
I finished the first draft after a couple of months. Okay, more like twelve months.
The story had an end. The characters had an arc. The good guys won, and the bad guys were punished (with a thin, hanging thread setting up a sequel).
But I ran into many familiar first-writer problems: A dead middle. Clues were revealed too early (or, in some cases, too late). It had an abrupt ending. It was on the bad side of the scale. Unfortunately (for me), it was a story I really liked.
I put it aside and started working on my second. Family Matters. (The second book I wrote, not the second book I released.)
It progressed in the same way. It had a good start, but I had NO idea how it would end; a middle so dead that I decided to have my main character shot to keep it interesting. And a really sloppy ending.
Around the same time I completed the first draft of Family Matters, I was introduced to the basics of story structure. I learned some important points about storytelling. The key ones:
The hero / main character needs to drive the conclusion. He or she can’t be “rescued”. (Not a structure thing, to be fair, but it drives the plot points.)
Every critical character, weapon, characteristic, etc., should be introduced in Act One even if it’s just a passing reference.
NOTHING new (weapons, skills, people critical to the ending) should be introduced as late as Act 3.
And a few other things that I’ll get into throughout this little book.
All of this was new to me. But it resonated. This was a PLAN—a blueprint for the story, laying out the milestones along the journey. I’m an engineer by training, and an engineer likes nothing more than a plan.
I re-wrote Matt’s War and Family Matters with the principles I outline in this book. Matt’s War is still one of my favourites and sits at 4.5/5 stars on Amazon.
Family Matters is still a bit of a mess —too many plotlines make it a bit busy. But I still like it. And it is a massive improvement over the first draft. A reviewer on Amazon said, “…I was hooked from the very first page. It was superbly written, fast paced and thrilling, straight to the point without frills.”
Everything (fiction) I write now is built around structure. I’ll argue in this book how adhering to a structure doesn’t mean cookie-cutter stories, and I’ll also argue that once you are familiar and comfortable with the concept of structure, you should forget it and write your story.
But you have to understand its power first.
I’ve written eighteen books over the past dozen years. They all “follow” the structure laid out in this book. These guidelines keep your story pacy and on point. When writing a story, my goal is to have the reader start at point A, finish at a completely unrelated point Z, and wonder how in the hell they got there, yet at no point in that journey get pulled out of the story.
My readers seem to think I’m getting the hang of things:
“This is a fast read, interesting plot.” – Book ‘Em review.
“Very action packed, on the edge of your seat story.” – Broken review
“It was so fast paced that sometimes I couldn’t tell if the story advanced by one day, one week or one month. But it was really entertaining and definitely a page turner.” – Broken review
“This is a short, fast read, …with lots of action, a few twists and turns, and several suspects to follow.” – Batteries Not Included review.
“It’s action-packed from start to finish with a twist or two to keep the reader engaged” – Number Fifteen review.
“As the case progresses, the plot gets more and more twisted, involving double cross, revenge, and manipulation. A fast read that’s pretty much all on the surface like an action/adventure.” – The Murder of Jeremy Brookes review.
And dozens more.
Making sure you hit the beats described in this book can ensure your story doesn’t lag, and your readers don’t toss your book on the DNF pile and reach for someone else’s.
What this book doesn’t do.
At no point will I talk about dangling participles, split infinitives or mismatched subject-verb pairs.
There are tons of how-to-write books. My best tip (if you’re interested) is to read your brains out. Read your favourite genre. Read a genre you never would think of reading. Read as much as you can.
You’ll see dozens of ways to express the passage of time, or how to effectively use dialogue tags.
My second best tip is to write. A lot. Find your voice. It’s not Neil Gaiman’s voice or Lee Child’s voice. It’s your voice.
And my third and final non-structure tip is to forestall edits until you’ve got your first draft in the bag. Don’t interrupt the creative flow with niggling things like, what was it again? Split infinitive or incorrect verb tenses. That’s for later.
This is not a long book. You should be writing, not reading about how to write. I could put together 400 pages of fluff, but I prefer meat and potatoes writing. This is quick and concise.
Full disclosure: I’m going to spoil a bunch of movies, and some books.
Tomorrow, When the War Began
A Knight’s Tale
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1)
Matt’s War – Tony McFadden
61 Hours – Lee Child
The e-Book will be available on Amazon on July 15th. The paperback version, shortly after.
I am predisposed to structure in almost everything.
When I first started writing (Matt’s War — read about it here), I had no idea how traditional story structure worked. I knew there were three Acts, but frankly, I had no idea what each Act consisted of, how to transition between the Acts or how much of the story was made up by each Act.
I had finished Matts’s War’s first draft when I learned how all successful movies and books are structured.
Now I need to be clear, all stories and movies that follow a good structure aren’t successful. The story needs to be good and the characters compelling. But a good story with compelling characters but poorly structured won’t resonate with readers or viewers.
So if story structure is so important, you’d think everyone would jump on it, but some still believe the mere existence of structure means a story is cookie-cutter with no originality.
I mentioned I have a predisposition to structure. I’m an Engineer by education and training. We don’t build something until we have a plan, whether it’s a computer, bridge, or building.
I see story structure as a blueprint. A line drawing of the cabinet you want to make. It contains the necessary elements to make a functional cabinet but leaves a lot up to the cabinet maker (or author). The type of wood, the finish, the quality of the hinges, all of that is up to the maker.
Same with story structure. I go more into it here (and more will be added in the future).
When I learned of this, the scales fell from my eyes. I had to make massive structural edits to Matt’s War. It has some of my best reviews yet.
So to the story structure deniers, deny all you want, but pick any successful book or movie, and I will show you, in detail, its underlying structure.
About seven or eight years ago, somebody (and I can’t recall who) put forward a “mini-movie” approach to structuring your story.
Just jumping in here to say story structure does not remove creativity. It’s a set of guidelines, much as building design rules are (roof is on the top, windows on the outside walls, basement on the bottom, plumbing not exposed), and every house (except for those suburbs built in the last decade) are different. If you don’t want to use a structure, fine. I find it much easier to plot a story if I have a rough idea of where things should be. And if you say not all stories follow a structure, name one. I’ll show you the inherent structure in a future post.
The scheme is divided into eight roughly equal sections. The first two constitute Act 1, the middle four constitute Act 2, and the final two constitute Act 3. The guidelines for each are as follows:
A couple of dozen words each, offering guidance to the writer on the expected deliverable for each section of your story.
What do you think? I’ve found this handy when I first start thinking about the outline of a new book.
I bang on this a lot, and if the truth be told, this is only a minor component of a good story, but one most often missing.
Stories have a structure. Generally, three acts. There are other structures, but they all resolve, in one way or another, to three acts. There are certain things a reader (or viewer, for movies and television) expects in Act 1. There are things readers and viewers will absolutely not accept in act three. And there are ways a story transitions from one Act to another that make the story more satisfying.
I’ve posted this before on previous incarnations of this or other blogs. I will do it again because I truly believe this is one of the crucial — and amazingly simple — ingredients to stories. I apologise in advance if learning about this ruins stories for you henceforth. You will recognise the end of the first Act and the move into the meat of the second Act. You will see the midpoint turn and feel the all-is-lost moment at the end of Act Two.
But that shouldn’t kill your enjoyment. It adds a layer of entertainment to good books and movies.
If you’re a writer and learning this for the first time, welcome. And recognise that once you know this, you can “forget” it. It will be the scaffolding upon which you hang your story. The real creativity comes in the bits between the plot points.
If you’re of the crowd who firmly believes that acknowledging such a structure exists and that following it will produce cookie-cutter, unimaginative and limp stories, I can only point you to “Witness”, “Breaking Bad” and “The Edge of Tomorrow”, all excellent, inventive and all following this structure. Pretty much every successful novel and movie over the past half dozen decades follow this three-act structure.
A high-level view first, then as the weeks progress, a post for each of the important bits.
As mentioned above, a story is divided into three Acts.
Acts are separated by the First Plot Point (between Acts 1 and 2) and the Second Plot Point (between Acts 2 and 3).
A note on terminology. Some call the first plot point the “inciting incident”, and that’s fine — this isn’t calculus — but for clarity going forward, I don’t.
The Inciting Incident in this model (not my model — it’s been around long before I started writing) occurs in the first 10% to 15% of the story. It’s the thing / event / whatever that triggers what will eventually be the first plot point at the end of Act 1. Like if a box of dynamite explodes to trigger the end of Act 1 and the start of Act 2, the inciting incident is lighting the fuse. Or, in one of my books — G’Day LA — the inciting incident is our protagonist Ellie Bourke discovering her friend and roommate has died, which convinces her to abandon her fledgling acting career and return to Australia. The First Plot Point is Ellie’s realisation that it wasn’t suicide, as the police believe, but a murder. She then abandons her return home to find the killer.
Can’t forget the Hook. Earlier in the story, the better. If you can hook the reader/viewer in the first page/scene, so much better.
In my current WIP, the opening pages have Dan McGinnis, owner of McGinnis Investigations, arriving at the office one Monday morning to find his surveillance expert passed out in a pool of blood in the office kitchen. This drives the rest of the story.
In Act 1, the status quo is defined. What are the protagonist and antagonist doing in their daily lives? What elements of their lives would be put most at risk by taking up whatever the First Plot Point brings them? If at all possible, any characters involved in the Act 3 resolution (which we will get to) should be mentioned, even if in passing, in Act 1.
Now, remember that Act 2 represents the protagonist stepping into what is the meat of the story. The First Plot Point pushes the protagonist out of their status quo into “the story”. You can’t just have the main character say, “okay, let’s go do this,” and expect your reader / viewer to merrily go along for the ride. There should be resistance in Act 1. Resistance to taking that step. Something should hold the protag from launching into the story. So you need something at the end of Act 1 that triggers this launch.
This “something” is the First Plot Point. In G’Day LA, it was the fact that her roommate had booked a career-changing gig, something he’d been dreaming of for years, for the afternoon of his apparent suicide. She then knew she had to do something about it.
Act 2 is generally split into two halves. It takes up roughly 50% of the story pages / viewing time, and this is where the meat of the story unfolds. Obviously, there needs to be an arc through this. The protagonist needs to work through real and fake clues in crime fiction. In romance, the couple must learn about each other, faults and all. I will focus on crime fiction because that’s what I write, but the principles are non-genre specific.
The first half of Act 2 should be an envelope of fog. Get the obvious solutions to the problem out of the way first. Why don’t they go to the cops? The cops have already made up their minds. How are you sure it wasn’t a suicide? The victim’s agent had confirmed attendance on the show just before the alleged suicide.
In the middle of this first half of Act 2, throw in a scene to demonstrate the abject evil of the antagonist. It’s not necessary for the protagonist to know of this evil at this time, it’s enough to show the reader. This is called the First Pinch Point.
But if the protagonist sees it also, so much the better.
Once the obvious has been put to bed, the MC starts down a path that seems like the right thing to do. Maybe based on misinterpreted facts, maybe based on fake facts. But they are invested in their path until
they stumble across the “this changes everything” Midpoint. This keeps Act 2 alive. It’s a long Act. A full hour in a two-hour movie. Two hundred pages in a standard novel. The midpoint twist needs to be a logical extension of what has already been explored (and possibly mistakenly discarded). No out-of-the-blue surprises. What it does for your story is restart the investigation. Old clues can be revisited with a different eye. New clues can be brought to light. It’s a whole new story. Sort of.
Much more progress is made, and about halfway through the second half of Act 2, mirroring the First Pinch Point is the Second Pinch Point. It provides a similar purpose as the first but can also be used to show the depths the protagonist will go to defeat the baddie. Embrace it.
It’s not all easy, though. The end of Act 2 plays best when the protagonist is at their lowest, seemingly defeated with nowhere to go. The All is lost moment. This is when the final piece of information gives the hero the path to victory. This final piece of information is The Second Plot Point. And what follows is:
Act 3. This starts with the battle of all battles. Two women enter, and one leaves kind of battle. The kind of battle that, at the end, with the protagonist victorious, seems like it’s over. But there’s one final twist. The “it’s still alive” moment. One final nail left for the coffin. It is a hard slog to the finish with as many relevant obstacles as possible.
When it’s time for the happy ever after (if you’re going that way), it works really well if your final scene mirrors your opening scene as much as possible.
And you’re finished.
Your hero needs to be a hero. Don’t have them rescued unless that rescue is 100% driven by something the hero has already provided.
Don’t add characters, skills, weapons, or anything in Act 3 that drives the conclusion. I read a book recently where the main character threw a fastball with unerring accuracy at a bad guy, hitting him in the head and knocking him out just before he attacked. The fact that he played baseball in college wasn’t revealed until AFTER that throw. That’s cheating. Introduce the baseball career in casual conversation in Act 1.
Make sure your transition scenes flow smoothly with scenes that lead up to and out of them. The First Plot Point can’t drop from the sky any more than expertise in baseball can.
No fucking cliffhangers. Finish the story. Resolve all threads introduced in the first two Acts. If you want to set up a sequel, fine, but finish the story you started.
If you have any comments, questions, or disagreements, please let me know below.