Story Crafting 12: Writing ABDC

Posted on April 30, 2021

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On the spectrum from panster to plotter

Maybe plotting works great for you. But if you get stuck try this. Maybe you are a panster. But if you get stuck try this.

For the record, this is the first time I’ve been forced to use the new WP editing suite and it sucks balls. No wonder I don’t come here much any more.

I think a lot about writing, I just seem to lack the discipline to do it. When Covid started I thought, “Oh, man, look at all the time I’ll have. I’m going to finish my book, and my remodel, and get into shape!” Unfortunately, for some reason, once the structure of my daily commute went away I found myself rather, well, adrift. It’s not that I haven’t worked on all of those things, I just haven’t made as much progress as I wished. I’m still working at my dining room table as my office remodel drags into it’s second year….

At any rate, it turns out that this post is about structure. Not only story structure, but how writing to market and on deadline is pretty much the only thing that works for me right now. Mostly in the last year or so my writing has been for written-to-market anthologies; editing for other people’s work; or finally finishing editing, designing and publishing Fly Fishing Russia: The Far East. (Although Marketing seems to be falling onto my plate, as well).

One of these anthology stories was 30,000 words written, beta-read, edited, and submitted in 4 days. Less time than it took me to do my taxes. (Shorter, too.) Compare that to Fly Fishing Russia, which took 15 years, and I have to ask, what’s the difference? Well for one, structure.

Publications in the last year

Okay so time-boxing the work, works. So does calorie counting, doesn’t mean we’re all going to start implementing it at our next meal. In that case, let’s talk about story structure.

2 Questions for moving forward

As I’ve mentioned before, I really like the book My Story Can Beat Up Your story. Although originally a book for scripts, it breaks story theory down into very consumable concepts. For instance I have a whole book on themes. Schecter, the author of MSCBUYS, handles it in two paragraphs. Brilliant. Nope, I won’t tell you. Buy the book, that nugget alone is worth the price.

Like most story structure theorists since Aristotle, Schecter breaks a story into 3 Acts, but four parts. Acts 1, 2A, 2B, 3. Then he maps those to the hero’s journey: Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, Hero. In his book, he goes on gloriously on how the second act is the easiest to write, breaking it down in 28 scenes where the thematic question is alternatively answered Yes, then No. if you never thought theme was important, time for a rethink. But, I digress. He also says on his blog:

“I’ve often said that anyone can write a story up to page 55. By that I mean that it’s relatively easy to tell half a story, but just at the point that a story needs to kick into high gear many writers lose direction and focus. “

Right? I see this a lot in online forums and even wrote about it. I would go so far as to argue that a story is Act 2, the rest is just set up and clean up. Before I write a story, I usually can write down the beginning, middle, and end. How it starts, the major conflict, how it’s resolved. Or Act 1, Act 2A end/2B start, Act 3 climax. At that point, I can start writing and basically it’s a drunkard’s walk getting from one part to the next, following a few simple rules I outline below.

Unlike Schechter, I don’t find Act 2 easy or even fun, even with 28 simple plot points to follow. Recently I did a read through of my WIP novel, my first, and realized that while what I have maps pretty well to any given story structure, I basically don’t have an Act 2B. I’ve kicked the Orphan out of the nest; Given the Wanderer a conundrum; and wrapped it all up tragically; but I never really set up the things in Act 3 that got resolved. Hmm what to do?

Well, it actually seems pretty simple: if you’ve written A, B, and D then you need to write C. So what I did was outline my 3rd act and then wrote act 2B, the Wanderer, backwards. Now, as I was thinking about this I was also writing “When We Had Hope” a new short story for the upcoming Hellhouds anthology. I had the same plotting issue, I had a juicy problem, and a satisfying solution, but how to connect them? And more importantly, how to connect them in the 2 days before deadline?

Act 2 is always about the end of the world

Example

I’m okay with realizing you will never buy that book so I’m going to totally spoil my own story. (Although it is for charity and if you open it in Kindle and read the first and last page we actually make more than if you buy it, so if this blog helps you at all please subscribe and when the book comes out you can pay it forward to a good cause.)

Setting pretty much leapt into mind when I saw the title Hellhounds: I put it in Purgatory. So in a few moments of contemplation I had:

  • The opening scene (Goblin the hellhound catches the scent of Rose the innocent and he and Horace the gatekeeper set out to find her).
  • They find the girl and trade thematic questions.
  • Rose convinces Horace that to be absolved of the sin that put him here he will have to leave Purgatory, meanwhile she will take his place and be the gatekeeper until she can accomplish her task and also be absolved.

Beginning, middle, and end, right? Just hook them all together. Now I could’ve taken a beat sheet and used it to figure out the connecting bits, but I prefer to just write until I’m stuck, and I finally figured out why, which is what this blog is about. If we go back to story theory we could say we have the Orphan, the Wanderer, and the Martyr. But where is the Warrior? Where is the actual conflict? Where is Act 2B? This is not a Story, it’s a Premise.

Another way to look at it is through the lens of Schechter’s blurb formula (he calls it a pitch formula, but if you need help with blurbs, try this):

When a TYPE OF PERSON (Gatekeeper)
has/desires/wants/gets (To save the innocent)
He or she gets/tries/does/learns (Gets Rose’s scent)
Only to discover that (BLANK)
And now that something happens (also BLANK)
And he or she must respond by doing (Absolving himself)

Well, blankety, blank, blank. Part of my process is lying down and imagining my story, then writing it out longhand on a legal pad. I especially try to capture any snappy dialog. (Okay, I think about my story until I fall asleep, but don’t tell my girlfriend, she’s convinced I’m working on the sofa, not napping.) So I’d written these 3 parts out, and then typed them up, and then I realized I was not as clever as I thought and so I asked myself:

What’s the worst thing that could happen?


Well, here’s a tip: The worst thing that can happen is always the world ending. Whether it’s the hero’s local world (Home Alone – Kids life is wrecked and he could die if burglars have their way), or then entire freaking universe (basically any super hero movie). Right though? The hero(ine) is always preventing the end of the world either literally or figuratively.

So I applied another method I try to use.

The solution is usually in the problem.

And then I thought about this idea that Purgatory would have to be connected to all times for my version of Purgatory to work. And if that was the case then you could time travel through Purgatory, misusing the entire concept of it. And if that was the case we could have villains. Villains whose actions were destroying not just this Purgatory, but everything connected to it. So now 2B had it’s own premise. If we wanted to be pithy about it we could go back to the formula and fill in the blanks.

Only to discover that (villains are interloping through Purgatory)
And now that s (the world is going to end)

Here is the blurb:

The gatekeeper of Purgatory and his trusty hellhound are tasked with tracking down the innocent souls in their realm and returning them to the physical world. However when they are escorting a young innocent back home, they realize that a group of techno-zealots is using Purgatory to time travel, potentially causing the collapse of all worlds and timelines.

Solving Act 2 by writing out of order

But I instinctively realized something that I only explicitly could state (hence the blog) once I’d picked up the legal pad to solve the getting-there-from-here problem.

A beat sheet alone is not sufficient.

At least for me. The beat sheet assumes that if you start here and add a step and then another step, you can linearly get to your goal. It’s basically the Wayz model of navigating story and many plotter books/columns/blogs fundamentally assume this is how you work. However, I learned to read maps long before Wayz came out and so maybe that’s why I need to know where I’m going before I plan my trip. (As an aside, I feel the same way about passive voice, it makes a lot of sense that we would write the result first, and then back up to the action “the ball was hit by Tim.” Of course we would want to edit that in a way that the reader was lead to the conclusion, and not give the ending away!)

So a very simplified version of my scratch pad looks like this:

ACT 3:
She sends him back, takes over

ACT 2 (in reverse order)

9. They escape

8. Rose wins out

7. Sends her back

6. Rescue

5. Second confrontation

4. Kidnapping

3. Confrontation

2. Foothold established

  1. Finds the villain


And then as the final check (re-ordering them just because you stuck it out this long) I also when through and put a +/- sign after each scene so I could make sure that their was one step forward, one step back. This drive escalating tension and conflict through the scene. Right up until they are all positive and then I know I’m actually now in Act 3.

1. Finds the villain +

2. Foothold established –

3. Confrontation +

4. Kidnapping –

5. Second confrontation +

6. Rescue +

7. Sends her back +

8. Rose wins out +

9. They escape +

Conclusion:

  • Write your premise, beginning, middle, and end. (ABD)
  • Write backwards from D to get C to answer “How is the world going to end?”
  • When stuck you can always go backwards from any scene any other.
  • When going forward remember to ask: “What’s the worst thing that could happen right now?”

Using this method I wrote my 4600 word story in 4 days: one day on the sofa with the pad, one day to write that up, another session writing 2B backwards, and one more session at the computer. Then off to the editor and one quick copy edit pass. So far, three people have read it and all of them said the exact same thing: “This could be a novel.” Yes, it could. Because it has all of the arc of a novel, the world building, the world ending, and thematic weight.