A Writer’s Journey (Part Six): Plotting a Transformation10 min read
In my previous post of this writer’s journey I began to recognise that pantsing alone wasn’t working for me. After writing one novel that I wasn’t entirely happy with, and another that I’d abandoned midway through, I decided it was time to learn about plotting methods.
It was time to go back to school.
So last year I packed myself off to the Festival of Writing in York and my eyes were opened to a world brimming with new possibilities.
The Three Act Structure
First I attended a workshop hosted by Jeremy Sheldon entitled “Why you should be writing in sequences”. This laid out the Three Act Structure, a method that splits a story into beginning, middle and end (sometimes known as ‘setup’, ‘confrontation’ and ‘resolution’, or, in Hal Duncan’s terminology, ‘spur’, ‘turn’ and ‘crunch’). Confusingly, to balance the acts the middle is expanded so that it’s double the length of the beginning and end, then split into two. This creates four key parts and presents an argument that this method should really be called the Four Act Structure. But I digress. In Jeremy’s preferred method, each of the four parts is then further split into two, resulting in eight core sequences:
For each of these sequences there are certain key plot and pinch points:
- Status Quo & Inciting Incident
- Predicament & Lock In
- First Obstacle & Raising the Stakes
- First Culmination/Midpoint
- Subplot & Rising Action
- Main Culmination/End of Act Two
- New Tension & Twist
I won’t go into detail on the specifics of each sequence here but if you’d like to know more, Scriptlab does a good job of explaining them.
Suffice to say, this is a template of sorts to build your plot around. And a very popular one, being used by the vast majority of Hollywood scriptwriters (though it’s equally applicable to writing novels).
I remember getting goosebumps when learning about all this. Maybe this was what I was looking for — something to help guide my stories. Something to give me assurance that my novel was heading in the right direction.
So, after enjoying Jeremy’s workshop, I followed it up with the perfect accompaniment: Craig M. Taylor’s workshop on theme. This channeled the work of Dara Marks, a famous and highly successful script consultant who formulated a groundbreaking approach called the Transformational Arc.
The Transformational Arc
The tranformational arc builds on the three act structure, but places central focus on the internal plot of the protagonist — on how he/she develops or transforms during the course of the story. It looks like this:-
The numbers at the top reflect the number of pages in a script, which can be replaced with the projected number of pages for your novel. This is a great way of outlining your story before you begin; structuring all your key plot points around it’s estimated final length.
Below the numbers you can see the familiar four sections of the three act structure.
The key thing we’re interested in here though, is the thick black line that indicates the protagonist’s emotional arc. In short, what we’re looking at here is a journey from the protagonist’s comfort zone on the left, through a developmental transition in the middle, and finally to the reconciliation of conflict as a result of that development on the right. Dara suggests that this transformation is the most important ingredient required to make a story fulfilling. A sentiment that echoes Christopher Booker’s argument that story satisfaction comes about through the self’s growth via victory over the ego. See my previous post for more on this.
“But where’s the external plot?” I hear you cry. Well, that’s the great thing about the transformational arc — your protagonist (or protagonists) don’t exist as an island. They transform in relation to events in the world. So those events — the external plot — should mirror and dovetail with the internal plot.
You’ll recall the name of the workshop where I learnt all this was Theme. So how do we get to theme from all this?
Well, actually, theme is where it all begins.
Contexts, characters, obstacles, fatal flaws, plots and sub plots can all be built around a theme.
First you choose a subject. Could be anything, but the simpler the better. Universal constructs tend to work best here such as dark and light, good and bad, virtues and vices. To use a great example from Dara’s book, Inside Story, let’s take love as our subject. Now we need to take a specific point of view on love — we need to decide on something to say about it. In Dara’s book she takes the thematic point of view: love is an adventure. Okay, so now we have a message, how do we go about presenting that? Well, first we create a goal related to our theme. As our theme is love is an adventure, let’s say our goal, or rather our protagonist’s goal, is to trust the adventure. If we invert that goal we then get our protagonist’s fatal flaw: fear of the adventure of love. From here we might surmise other characteristics of our protagonist too. If she mistrusts the adventure, perhaps she’s isolated and lonely; perhaps without experiencing love, she idealises it.
So now we’re building a picture of our protagonist and we can invert her characteristics to create a context and events that will force her to grow; force her to face and overcome her fatal flaw; force her to trust the adventure. So we throw her into a jungle — way out of her comfort zone. We thrust her into an adventure in the external plot that’s dangerous, scary and unpredictable — qualities that reflect her fears about love. But then of course we need to have her fall in love — an internal adventure that will mirror the external plot. And through overcoming the hazards of the internal and external adventure, she will go through the transformational arc above.
As you can see, by starting with a very high-level subject and a theme we have managed to build both an internal and external plot together with characters, motivations, flaws and all. This example is actually the plot from the movie Romancing the Stone, a hugely successful romantic-comedy-adventure that follows the structure of the transformational arc to the letter — literally — to the page of the script, and proves how effective a method it is.
This is a huge topic and I don’t seek to do it justice here — for that I highly recommend reading Dara’s book, or attending one of Craig’s workshops, where you’ll get to try out practical examples.
Building a plot board
After being blown away by all this I started working out my theme, characters etc then rushed out and purchased a white board so that I could start mapping out my plot. Here’s the result:
Hopefully you’ll recognise the transformational arc from the diagram above. But something you can’t see is that I also stuck post-its above each section to indicate word counts. This allowed me to see roughly which page each key plot point should fall on. As you can see, I also split the three acts into eight sections, fusing Jeremy’s sequences with the transformational arc. The post-its detail what’s happening, either to the protagonist internally, or externally in the plot.
The tarot cards were a stroke of inspiration. I wanted a way to summarise each sequence in pictoral form and found that tarot cards were particularly useful for this. Not least because they were designed to be symbolic of experiences and psychological states; to visualise the complex interplay of the archetypes of the collective unconscious.
Basically, they distil a sequence into a simple picture and as such work as a kind of mnemonic. And, even if you’re unfamiliar with the deep underlying meanings of the cards, it’s still pretty easy to build a sense of what’s going on — almost like a comic strip.
The Hero’s Journey
Also integrated into my plot board are stages and archetypes from the Hero’s Journey.
In Joseph Campbell’s original interpretation there are twelve stages:-
As you can see, this cycle of internal and external conflict resolution is quite similar to those we’ve encountered in the three act structure and the transformational arc. Because of this it wasn’t difficult to layer its stages into my plot, adding a little more nuance.
So now I’d managed to fuse three plotting methods and a means of visualising them.
If only writer’s, like physicists, were trying to find a unified theory…
Join me in the next instalment of my writer’s journey when we’ll look at how all this plotting panned out in practice.
How do you plot? Tell me about your own writer’s journey in the comments below.
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