PLOT and STORY STRUCTURE
When I started writing it was almost impossible to find training courses on commercial fiction in the UK. Now there are many excellent courses on the craft of romance fiction writing, including those from Kate Walker, Jessica Hart, Sharon Kendrick and Julie Cohen.
Plus there are numerous conferences you can attend and online articles and textbooks available on the theory of story structure. Most of these are focused on the craft of screenwriting but many of the key points are directly applicable to category romance where the author has to choreograph the emotional response from the reader in a short timeframe.
I have a shelf full of books, folders of notes and a page of favourite online resources – but I tend to come back to a number of basic principles.
The reader has a one-to-one relationship with the characters you create through the words on the page. The writer is therefore the medium of that communication so that the story builds to create a satisfying read for the reader.
From personal experience and that of other published Mills and boon authors, I find that we tend to use very deep story structure to best effect during the editing and revision processes. But whether you plot your book in advance, or write into the mist and chisel out a form later, the end result is still the same. You have a first fast draft manuscript which needs to have a basic framework to support the story and provide that essential roller coaster up and down emotional journey.
I think of it this way.
Level One Structure. The foundations are going in.
Level Two are the walls, floors and ceilings.
Level Three is the interior and exterior design. The surface gloss and sparkle.
Other writers do it completely differently, off the cuff and structure freezes them – and it works for them, so brilliant. But I need my tools to get the job done so please don’t shake your head at me like that.
Diving in. Level One.
- I have my story idea. You know. The big idea. The one which is going to win you the RITA and every other award and sell squillions. That idea.
- I have a good idea of my hero and heroine and their external and internal conflicts -but I know that I will find out a lot more when I get them together.
- I have a setting which is very important for me.
- Now I need a form which will tell their story in the most effective way.
Most authors seem to accept that a Four Act Structure is the basic plot outline. This system came from theatre plays, where there was something dramatic to hook the audience into coming back for the next part after the break. Not much has changed.
Which means that your first draft of the novel needs to have a number of key Turning Points where the story shifts/something is revealed/stakes increase – the story moves on and there are no sagging middles but a controlled pace.
This is what Michael Hague has to say – similar to Blake Snyder and other gurus.
THE FIVE KEY TURNING POINTS OF ALL SUCCESSFUL SCRIPTS
Hollywood movies are simple. Though writing a successful Hollywood movie is certainly not easy, the stories for mainstream Hollywood films are all built on only three basic components: character, desire and conflict.
Film stories portray heroes who face seemingly insurmountable obstacles as they pursue compelling objectives. Whether it’s Clarice Starling trying to stop Hannibal, Captain Miller Saving Private Ryan, or Billy Elliott trying to gain admission to a ballet school, all these protagonists confront overwhelming conflict in their pursuit of some visible goal.
Plot structure simply determines the sequence of events that lead the hero toward this objective. And here’s the good news: whether you’re writing romantic comedies, suspense thrillers, historical dramas or big budget science fiction, all successful Hollywood movies follow the same basic structure.
In a properly structured movie, the story consists of six basic stages, which are defined by five key turning points in the plot.
I would suggest that the first three chapters of any Mills and Boon novel form the crucial Act 1 of the book. Some people call it the first Sequence of Scenes, but same thing.
Chapters 4 to 6 are the Falling in Love Scenes which end at the Critical Midpoint of No Return [the sex at 60 in a 120 page screenplay].
Chapters 7 to 9 are the complications where the love has changed their worlds and the stakes are increased. Leading to a Crisis Decision
Chapters 10 – the Battle for their relationship – Climax scene. Followed by the resolution/aftermath in Chapters 11 and any Epilogue to show the new life as a couple.
Important – The Percentage figures for the Acts do NOT equate to word count.
You do NOT divide your book into four and write exactly 12,500 words for each of the four acts to create a 50, 000 word novel. It COULD be that way, but the further you go along in your novel, the more compressed each sequence of scenes can become. Because in a novel events escalate furiously as we near the end. Because tension is rising and things have snowballed into bigger and bigger stakes and the relationship is in crisis.
This is where writing a novel differs from writing a screenplay. You have a lot more flexibility. In my case, the early chapters are usually a lot longer than the later ones.
But the four Act form is still the most useful Level One kicking off point to structure a loose collection of words and pages. They set way markers and milestones on the journey my characters are taking.
How to use them? That’s the next step. That is when we get to play and have fun.