Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Wishing for Paint by Number

A writer friend and I were chatting last week about the challenges of structuring our novels. We wished for a paint-by-number set--and I said I'd try to create one. Herewith, the analysis of a book leads to this fill-in-the-scenes novel formula: 

Chapter One
The Tip of the Iceberg [Act I]

Intro main character and his or her life situation. 

The MC’s action in response to an external event hints at the internal conflict. 

Action and reaction demonstrate a key personality trait that will drive the character’s decision-making process. 

The reader is hooked because it’s clear from the conditions (rules of the story universe) that the story problem is going to be bigger than the temporary resolution adopted by the MC. 

Chapter Two

Regardless of the character’s desire, he or she cannot avoid the dreaded problem. 

The MC prepares to rise to the challenge, but difficulties arise, reinforcing the MC’s apprehension about the size of the iceberg. 

Chapter Three
Into the Ocean [Act II]

The main story problem delivers the MC into a new world. (The MC may appear to have set aside or escaped from the main problem.)

New characters (allies and enemies) may be introduced. 

The MC must learn new skills to complete the next task. His or her key personality trait sometimes helps but may hinder progress. The task may not appear to be aimed at solving the story problem.

Chapter Four
Struggle for Survival

Setbacks and achievements give the MC the tools for battling the main problem. 

Settings and skills will come into play later. 

The MC advances in the new world. More tasks or challenges confront the MC as a result of his choices. 

When the main problem looms, the MC chooses a perilous and circuitous path. 

Chapter Five
Hanging On

The MC now must solve a new problem related to the chosen path. 

Again, a key personality trait drives his or her direction. 

The mission is nearly thwarted, but the MC persists and self-reinforces the decision to forge ahead on this new path. 

Chapter Six
A Turn for the Worse

The MC’s choice creates more problems than it solves, and the MC must solve the new problems. 

A bigger immediate problems demands the MC’s attention. It’s clear that the MC’s chosen path is flawed, and a new plan is needed.

Chapter Seven
Still in the Water

Yet another fail forces the MC to try another new solution.

Chapter Eight
Drowning Appears Inevitable

The obstacles appear unsurmountable. The MC’s actions have forced him or her into a dead end with no way out. 

Chapter Nine
Everything Goes Wrong [Act III]

The MC’s failed efforts force a climax. Consequences apply. 

Chapter Ten
Character Saves Himself by Learning to Swim

MC recognizes the ultimate solution to the main problem, adopts it, and lives happily ever after. 

That's all there is to it! Except I don't believe a formula works. In the end, each writer has to walk his or her own path. 

What about you? Have you ever tried to create a formula, or follow one? 


Kat Jones said...

I agree with you Chris. Though I think there are underlying concepts that are found in good books (such as multi-faceted characters, layering of plot, etc.), I do not believe there is a "formula" for writing a story.

Carla Swafford said...

Girl, you're freaky, scary smart. I agree, no true 'formula' but the basis to build on the story must be there. Otherwise it would be a bunch of ramblings. You need to think about making this into a workshop.

Chris Bailey said...

If only! I'm trying to apply my own formula now, and finding that, too, is difficult!

Chris Bailey said...

I'm just bumbling around looking for answers. Thank you, as always, for your encouragement! Oh, and sorry the post was late! I had it ready, and then--I guess I hit the dimmer switch on my brain.

Louisa Cornell said...

Hey this paint by numbers thing has some really great ideas, Chris! I agree with Carla! As in all creative endeavors while the "formula" gives a writer the guidelines the individual brushstrokes are what makes a story unique. Cool!

Cari Hislop said...

I think that was a great generic breakdown. Earlier this year I discovered 'The Seven Basic Plots' by Christopher Booker. The man spent thirty-five years studying story structure from different ages all over the world. I didn't actually read the whole thing as it's a veritable doorstop, but it offers a fascinating viewpoint of story telling and what makes a timeless story. Saying that, I think stories know how they want/need to unfold, but I think understanding how a good story unfolds is an important in learning to hear the story.

Chris Bailey said...

Thank you. Absolutely, the story has to be original. But I've heard Picasso learned realism before breaking with tradition. My stories tend to go all Jackson Pollack on me. So I'm practicing!

Chris Bailey said...

Oh, Cari, I'm praying it doesn't take me 35 years to get it! I think I'll locate that doorstop. Sounds like a good reference.