Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Plotting, Structure And Other Stuff The October Schmooze Kinda-Sorta Covered (The Journey of Your Book, Part II)

It was another full house at the October 8th Schmooze, which again included a handful of first timers – woot, woot!  After announcements and introductions, we quickly got down to the business at hand – namely, how do we get from Story Spark (explored last month) to figuring out our plot and structure?

                                                    Partygoer #1:
                            Right now, it's only a notion. But I think I can get
                            money to make it into a concept.  And later turn it
                            into an idea.
                                                                  – Annie Hall

As usual, Charlie did extensive internet research.  Though some (Karol) might argue that this is merely his way of avoiding writing, others (Charlie) might argue that this is a complete misunderstanding of his process.  When tackling a new Schmooze topic, Charlie looks deep inside himself to figure out his own personal response.  Finding nothing there but desolation and despair, a barren wasteland in black and white (not unlike the end of Eric Von Stroheim’s Greed) with only a few, desiccated, dying maggots of regret, Charlie turns to the internet. 

Here’s what he found out about turning a brainstorm into a book: 

Everybody does it differently.

It’s all a matter of what works for you, what “door” you need to go through to get into your story.  For instance, a surprising number of writers favor doing your research, notes, and brainstorming and then just starting to write.  As one of them said, “Sometimes once you start with something, you kick out some more ideas whereas if you leave the idea to fester it will continue to do so.”  Others are more Karol-like in their dependence on outlining and mapping, some even saying things like, “A plot has three parts and two main transition points. T1 is the ‘epiphany moment’ where the story is moving along and something happens to change everything.  T2 is the ‘point of no return’ where something happens to force an ending either way.”  (Charlie thought T2 was just an overproduced sequel to a masterpiece.)

Charlie then tried to learn what Plato was on about in his poetics.  The main thing Charlie manage to cull from the great philosopher was the difference between plot and story:  Plot is causal.  This happened because that happened:

                        The king dies, and the queen dies – story
                        The king dies, and the queen dies of grief – plot
                                    E. M. Forester

With that, the discussion turned to structure, and Karol, being the tragically regimented gal that she is, gave a rundown on 3 Act screenplay structure, which she feels can be applied to children’s novels.  She also offered up the value of another screenwriting trope, the 12 point Beat Sheet and shared a few specific details about how creating one for her new middle grade novel helped her to figure out the plot.  In both of these structure tools, the beginning and end sections together are as long as the middle section, so a 12 point beat sheet would take a 3-6-3 format.  Charlie began to think how he never really got math and only passed geometry ‘cause Mr. Samuels took pity on him and so, lost track of the conversation.

“But what of pictures books?” Karol mused, bringing Charlie back to consciousness..  She tried her hand at creating a 4 point Beat Sheet for Green Eggs and Ham, and came up with the following (which, incidentally, amused structure-phobic Charlie to no end):


1.     Sam I Am tries to get the narrator to try green eggs and ham, but the narrator refuses.


2.     Sam makes many suggestions of circumstances in which the narrator may like green eggs and ham; the narrator rebuffs every suggestion and adds his own examples of circumstances in which he still would not like green eggs and ham.

3.     Exasperated, the narrator agrees to try green eggs and ham if it’ll make Sam leave him alone.

4.     The narrator tries green eggs and ham and discovers, to his astonishment, that he likes them.

Of course, there are many tools available to help writers figure out plot and structure.  Charlie uses the outline feature in Microsoft Word heavily and brought examples to share.  And while he finds popular writing software Scrivner most helpful once he’s gotten into revisions, other writers swear by using it from start to finish.  Some writers like using real index cards (as opposed to virtual versions, like Scrivner features) to get a look at their stories physically laid out in front of them.  Starting at the end of your story and working your way backwards, making sure there’s cause-and-effect from scene to scene, is another trusted plotting exercise.

Many books, blogs and podcasts offering help with plot and structure are out there, too – from the oft-mentioned Save the Cat by Blake Snyder to 20 Master Plots (And How To Build Them) by Ronald Tobias (both technically screenwriting books but applicable to any stories) to Second Sight by Cheryl B. Klein and the Narrative Breakdown podcast (http://www.narrativebreakdown.com/). 

For writers of fantasy and otherworldly stories, Charlie and Karol asked  (perhaps cajoled is a more accurate word) Rita Crayon Huang to present some info on world building.  She began by saying that if you google “world building,” you get an exhaustive amount of info.  She turned to a trusted source for her own writing – Malinda Lo’s Five Foundations of World Building.  These include: Rules, Rituals, Power, Place and Food (yes – food!).  Read all the details here - http://www.malindalo.com/2012/10/five-foundations-of-world-building/

The discussion then moved on to The Other Stuff Your Book Kinda-Sorta Needs – and that’s a list that can be endless.  A few items on the list might be:  voice, humor, a distinct point of view, flawed but relatable character(s), character arc, antagonist, obstacles, theme, stakes, etc., etc., etc..  Different books have different requirements, and each writer is probably the best judge of what his or her own story needs.

We finished up the night with a choice of writing exercises.  Schmoozers were invited to try their hands at doing beat sheets (for both novels or picture books) or to work on “Other Stuff Brainstorming” (with the help of Karol’s trusty worksheets, which you, TOO, can use by clicking HERE.)  After rapping a bit about how the exercises went, it was time to pack up and say our goodnights. 

Based on the full houses and lively participation this month and last, it’s clear to us here at Schmooze Central that this Journey Of Your Book Year-Long Schmooze Experiment is a huge hit!  Be sure to continue the journey with us on Wednesday, November 12th when we’ll be discussing Writing, Rewriting, Discipline And Other Loathsome Necessities.

Until then, keep passing the open windows,

Charlie & Karol


  1. I'd love to come to the next Schmooze on 11/12 - can you tell me where it is? Apologies if it's listed here (esp if it's right out in the open). I can't seem to find the location. Thanks!

  2. The SCBWI Westside Writer's Schmooze is held at the Fairview Branch of the Santa Monica Public Library at 21st and Ocean Park. We meet fro 7 PM - 8:45 PM. If you're not on our mailing list, send an e-mail to westsideschmooze@hotmail.com and request to be added. Also check out the Schmooze calendar for the LA county region (go to SCBWI.org, click on regional chapters and the CA-Los Angeles) for info on our Schmooze as well as many others in the area.