How To Plot A Novel Like A Well-Timed Mechanical Ambush (Part Four)

Here we are in the final stretch. Once you’ve done all your character work, you’ve got a lot of story synopses that tell the whole story from each character’s piece of the story. Now we roll it up into one blueprint, the 4-page treatment.

First, take you logline in step one and expand that into a paragraph made up of 5 and ONLY 5 sentences.

  1. Sentence one should cover your BEGINNING or the Inciting Incident as I refer to it.

  2. Sentence two will cover Act 1 to the first Plot Point.

  3. Sentence three covers Act 2 to the Mid-Point.

  4. Sentence four covers Act 2 after the Mid-Point to the second Plot Point.

  5. Sentence five covers Act 3, your climax.

Next, take your paragraph of five sentences and expand that into a clean one-page treatment. Expand your five sentences into five separate paragraphs. Each paragraph will describe exactly the same territory as each sentence did above. Therefore:

  1. Paragraph one covers the BEGINNING.

  2. Paragraph two fleshes out Act 1 to PP1.

  3. Paragraph three details Act 2 to the Mid-Point.

  4. Paragraph four covers the rest of Act 2 up to PP2.

  5. Paragraph five will detail Act 3 completely to the END.

What comes next is what Syd Field calls the “kick in the ass” assignment: the four page treatment. Note that this procedure is pretty much the same in both the Snowflake Method and in Syd Fields’ Screenwriter’s Workbook. Here’s how we break it out:

  1. Page one will cover all of Act 1.

  2. Page two will cover Act 2 up to the Mid-Point.

  3. Page three covers the second half of Act 2.

  4. Page four covers all of Act 3.

Notice that we’ve written this four page treatment according to the same space requirements we’ve described in step 2 by dividing your total word count into 4 equal chunks. Act 1 and 3 occupy one-fourth of the total length of the story and Act 2 is one half of the total. Work on this until you have a perfect four page treatment. Single space or double space? I single space it to get more info per page and can fit in all the character story lines into the final document.

The Snowflake Method gives you two extra steps in that you write up a complete scene list chapter by chapter and Syd Field does the same thing but uses index cards to make the scene list, one card for each scene.

I don’t do the scene lists. Once I have a tight four page treatment, I stop planning there and start the actual writing of the novel. For me, the four page treatment is all I need. At this point, I know EXACTLY what I’m writing. So I start writing.

Here’s why I don’t do scene lists: once I start writing, the characters will come to life and will ALWAYS take over the story with stuff you could have never seen coming in the planning stage. This is where the magic happens. In fact, what actually happens in Pretty Hate Machine is a perfect example. What happens in the novel as it reads today IS NOT what I thought was going to happen from the Mid-point on. What happens in the novel is solely the result of the characters taking over and showing me a much better series of events than I could have ever cooked up at the macro level of planning. It’s that great surprise I’ve eluded to but haven’t ruined with a spoiler. The first thing to go out the window for me is that scene list. It always changes for me once the characters take over driving the bus. So why waste time writing something that’s almost always going to change? The four page treatment is all the blueprint I need to start writing confidently.

Give your characters the freedom to come to life. Otherwise, you will run the risk of turning the characters into marionettes that are just moving around the story because the plot says they have to do this, whether they want to do that or not. Let them live, O Jedi Scribe!

They say there are two kinds of novelists: planners and pantsers (flying by the seat of your pants). Pantsers just start writing with little or no prior planning, thinking that by just writing, at some point, the characters will reveal the plot and the story will write itself. For the beginner, this is dangerous. You will probably write a lot of junk that has no business being in the story and you could end up in a dead end – not knowing what the hell to do next. I’m three-quarters planner and one quarter pantser. I only let the pantser come into play AFTER I know exactly what it is I’m writing, knowing in advance what the targets are I’m moving towards.

Only write scenes that either move the story forward or reveal something essential about character or necessary exposition like backstory. If the material doesn’t do one of those two things, CUT IT OUT. Ruthlessly. I don’t care how much you like it. If you’re not moving the story relentlessly forward, then it doesn’t belong. Literary-type writers often times lose their minds when confronted with advice like this. We’re not literary writers. We’re genre writers which means, ultimately, we’re writing to be read, by as many readers as we can attract. Literary writers seem to hold us genre writers up in something less than contempt. I feel the same way about them as they do about me.

The formula I’ve revealed here will work for ANY genre tale you want to tell. It’s not just for action-horror novels like I write. It works for any story that follows the eternal hardwired blueprint we call the 3-Act Structure. Deviate from this timeless structure at your own risk.

We’re done here. I hope you’ve gotten something out of this. Now go write your Great American Genre Novel. And when you do, let me know how this has worked out for you. I’d like to know.

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