The Importance of the Impossible
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My Secret Novel Journal : Week Two

Posted by A.E. Marling in My Writing | Novel Journal

After a week of outlining, I’m not satisfied. That’s a good place to be.

I started collecting fun ideas for my story, amazing adventures for the setting, and challenges the protagonist could face. This locale I’ve used before, so I’m updating rather than inventing. When I indulge in cartography I use a Map Editor tool from my youth, from a game called Heroes of Might and Magic III. It allows me to place representative structures and add notes with text.

When brainstorming I do my fair share of staring at the computer screen while grinding my teeth, but I prefer to alternate that with thinking while running and reading (but not all three at the same time). This week I researched mountain goats, an animal of incredible dexterity and resource. In my fantasy novel, the protagonist will ride a similar creature, a woolly goat. Not only does this allow her to clomp up cliffs, but it also grants the story a boon of an animal companion.

Putting an animal in danger creates more tension than imperiling a human. Creatures of the furry and cute variety are more immediately sympathetic, in part because they are most often perceived as blameless. Also, an exotic creature plays into the wish-fulfillment angle of the fantasy genre. I love imagining flying on a dragon’s back. For this story, I have humbler goals: Leaping over a waterfall on a woolly goat, charging down snowdrifts, goring enemies with black spear-point horns. You know, the kinds of things you might put in a college-admittance essay.

I organized what I think might happen into a four-act structure. I’ll go more into depth about this structure in later posts, but the idea is that stories have natural beats, rhythms of tension. Like songs that break for instrumentals at minute two, having the right narrative notes at the correct times will grant power and a sense of resonance to a novel. Here I chart story progression against tension.

In brief:
Act I: All key characters and concepts are introduced or at least foreshadowed. Call to action / inciting incident. Building tension. Sympathy for the protagonist established. The first turning point introduces a twist that makes the quest more challenging than expected.

Act II: The hero is thwarted again and again because she lacks understanding of her fatal flaw. Someone else helps her gain understanding at the moment of truth.

Act III: Growth past the fatal flaw brings a period of easing tension. The hero revels in her new-found ability until the second turning point, when the antagonist rallies.

Act IV: All is lost! The hero loses faith in herself and regresses. Only when she once again overcomes her fatal flaw can she triumph. This time the impetus for change must come from within.

If you’re planning something deliciously terrible to happen to the protagonist, the first or second turning points would be a good place to plant this misfortune. If you wreck tragedy at the center of the novel, for instance, the reader might grow frustrated. At that stage it should feel like the hero is progressing. Likewise, if you allow the hero to dominate too early, the success may feel undeserved.

At this point I have a few checklists I like to use as tools for additional inspiration. The first was designed for screenplays, but most of the structure still applies to novel writing. I’ve found the chief difference to be in the start. The first moments of novels (first pages) are more important. Some movies ease into things, while novel openings require a flash and bang of tension (but not necessarily action). Again, more on this later.

Item number four gave me cause for concern. Currently, the goal of my viewpoint characters is something close to, “Gain a smidgen of happily ever after.” This may be suitable in a story titled, Never After, but the softness of the goal worries me. It’s possible that in the story, when fighting off enemy warriors and scraping along the cliff edge of survival, the goal will seem more concrete and tangible, but I’m still enjoying second-guessing myself. Now on to the next checklist:

For additional detail, read Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. I am confident my story satisfies items one and two, by transporting the reader to a mountain etched with myth. Again, number four suggests I may have a problem. I was initially planning the hero’s goal to be saving the soul of her lost love from an eternity of chillsome madness. That’s a kind thing to do, but I’m not certain I can phrase it in terms of MUST and CANNOT. Unless I say her own sanity requires she MUST save him, and setting that up would take more time than I’m willing to grant it. I’m not certain I want my heroine to risk everything for the love she lost when she was sixteen. Rather, that element might be better as part of her back-story, a detail of why she became tough as granite.

To test out a new angle, I wrote pitch #6, which you can find here.

One change these checklists immediately inspired was character condensing. Initially I planned to have the protagonist meet a minor character in the first chapter, but I realized this should instead be the antagonist. He would casually demean her and the love she just lost, inflaming the hero (and reader) with a desire to see his downfall. When the goal of happiness is rather general and intangible, having a strong antagonist will be critical. The list is also encouraging me to tie in subplots, and I likely should use some of the tips in point thirteen in the transitions between acts one and two, three and four.

Over the next week I’ll continue to mull over my outline. I may also start reading a new book on writing. Between novels I always study up on craft. A writer who believes himself above learning is lost.

I wish you a week of fire-cracker inspiration. If you have any questions about a point on the checklist, feel free to ask in a comment. Suggestions will also be greedily accepted.

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