Story Structure: The Magic Bullet that Nearly Killed Me
I was lost. After five years of work on a novel, it had become a Mobius strip: every time I reached the end, it was a completely different book. I would start over at the beginning, a new side, a total rewrite.
The book slowly transformed while I was working as a reporter in DC in the mid-aughts, from a serious novel with hints of satire to a proper thriller about an Iranian conspiracy against the US. It would have been a great, prescient, cut-from-the headlines conspiracy tale, except it was old news by the time I was done.
Then I picked up a handful of books, mostly targeted at screenwriters, on genre and story structure. It wouldn’t be totally out of bounds to call what they taught formulas. They saved my writing life—but they also nearly ended it.
I wish I could tell you that I went for some high-toned literary-critical understanding of the novel, or even good MFA workshop craft-minded books like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, but no. This was down-and-dirty screenplay structure by the numbers: three acts, take the hero down and then bring him back up.
I was in deep on Save the Cat and Syd Field and Robert McKee (the mysterious screenplay savior featured in Adaptation) and it was glorious. Watching movies became a revelation. It was like a paranoid conspiracy thriller in real life, as I saw the same secret code hidden behind every film and TV show I had ever watched and loved. There it is, five minutes in, “the theme stated,” and there it is at minute twelve, “the catalyst.” Those guides offered a way out, a means to tame that never-ending work-in-progress.
Then some plot complications happened in real life that could have come straight out of the screenplay formulas: up the stakes and add a ticking clock.
The financial crisis of 2008 hit, and I lost my job at The Atlantic. I had to decide whether I should really make a go at writing novels or not. Three days after I received the bad news, during one of my last reporting trips, I heard back from a big-deal agent. I had sent pages to a young friend who ran in literary circles in New York a couple of months before, after she offered to share them with a few agent acquaintances, and I hadn’t expected much. The agent told me the pages were great, and I should keep going. I’d never had any professional feedback on my fiction, so it was just what I needed to hear at that moment.
I decide to go for it: live off my meager savings and rework the book. I was going to get married soon, my own self-imposed deadline.
I slashed and burned my way through the manuscript, and stripped it down to three clean acts. Anything that wasn’t on the spine of the story—a conflict between villain and hero that started on page one and led inexorably to a final showdown—died.
I finished it. It was good enough to get me an agent, but its pained gestation showed, and (fortunately) the agent and I decided to start from scratch. Armed with lessons learned and my new-found writing gurus, I did the next novel strictly by the book. I pored over plot structures and was up all night reading screenwriting blogs (John August’s is incredible) and devouring the beat sheets of the movies I’d grown up with.
That book took nine months, working from an outline. Where writing had once been a terrifying hunted stumble through the darkness, now it was fun. I knew where I was going.
It was called The 500, and if it didn’t sell I was going to put fiction to the side and go back to journalism. There I was, broke and on the edge of giving up. For extra pathos I had torn my ACL, and was limping around on crutches during a freakishly snowy DC winter. As we say in formula-writing land: Take your hero all the way down, and see if he can fight his way back.
What happened next is so surreal and magical that sometimes I think I’m delusional, dreaming that it all transpired while in reality I live under a bridge in Rock Creek Park. If that is the case, I’ll take it. It’s a nice dream.
A month before the wedding, I was riding the S4 bus with my crutches when I received an offer from Little, Brown and Co. and Reagan Arthur, our dream editor (now publisher of Little, Brown). The next week a movie option from Fox came through. Two life-changing moments.
This feels like bragging, but don’t worry, it’s only to set up a reversal a few beats later in the plot. The 500 hit the New York Times bestseller list, and sold in 20 languages. Samples from Harris-Teeter became a much less important part of my daily diet. In the writing formula business, this is a classic midpoint move: the false victory.
I wish everything were so simple: that guides to plot and structure were magic bullets, fail-proof formulas for fame and fortune. They’re not. Though indispensable to getting myself out the quagmire of my early efforts, they ultimately became a dangerous crutch I had to outgrow.
There were invaluable lessons about designing casts, setting up foils, and giving clear desires to your characters. I still remind myself of these points every time I start a book, because I tend to get lost in the details and plot complications. You need a good guy and bad guy, set inevitably on a collision course from page one. You need to ratchet up the stakes chapter by chapter, and take your hero all the way down before he or she can come back up (or vice versa). Perhaps these should all have been obvious. A lifetime of books and movies had ingrained them as instincts, but seeing them stated outright made it so much easier to plot them out deliberately.
While these guides are often derided as formulas, some of them are very smart books. I write thrillers, which are relatively plot-driven, but many of the principles apply equally to all genres, especially those in Story by McKee. His book is far more profound than most literary folks might suspect. I was awed when he showed how it doesn’t matter if your villain is Hans Gruber in Die Hard or despair in a Bergman film; the same rules apply. Dramatic formula can’t be all bad. No one turns their nose up at Aristotle’s Poetics, and he is all about plot structure.
But those books, after confirming and clarifying a lot of my instincts, started to lead me astray. I’d gotten so much out of the basics that I gave my full credence to every particular and overly prescriptive point. I started making crazy charts. I can’t blame the books. It was my fault for hoping and believing there was always a clear path through the wilds of plot.
Writing in outline is too easy. The characters lose their veto power. Once you sit down to draft chapters and those characters come to life, things start getting weird and overdetermined, and character logic can seem forced. An over-reliance on formulas make things formulaic. It seems an obvious lesson, but I had to live it to really absorb its truth.
I was happily going along in my new life as a full-time novelist, and handed in a draft of my second novel, an over-plotted, over-stuffed, over-complicated sequel to the miracle book. The news came back through my agent: my editor wanted to talk. That’s a bad sign. Then the phone call came and with it the three scariest words you can hear as a desperate-to-please young man who is lucky enough to be paired up with one of the best editors in publishing.
“Six month rewrite.” As far as I could tell, that was polite editor-speak for “light this on fire and throw it out the window.” Thank God she made that call. This brings us to the end of Act Two: the all is lost moment, followed by the dark night of the soul.
I’d run from one overboard theory to another, from the paralyzing self-critical habits of college literary workshops—where every line needs to be tweaked endlessly as it’s written—to the equally treacherous equivalent in genre—where the outline must be chiseled, beat by beat, to perfectly match a formula before word one can go down.
I freaked out for a while. Then I loosened up. I didn’t have time to over think things. I ventured back into that wilderness without a map. We forget the details of plots, because it’s the characters who fascinate us and stay with us long after the last page. I realized that The 500 had worked not because of some plot formula, but because I loved its characters and poured into it years of my life working and living as a reporter in DC.
I got into writing very rough first drafts. The most important lessons of the screenwriting books stuck with me: the clear conflict, the clean central stakes of the book. But once I had that spine, I let the characters vote. I stopped fussing with the elaborate schematics and overly neat arcs, and just started writing, relying more and more on my own experience and lessons learned. The result was a mess, but it was a mess that flowed from what the characters wanted and who they were, rather than some arbitrary signpost in some abstract plot map that only exists in my head. The readers only see what’s on the page. The book’s surprises were surprising, because I hadn’t seen them coming.
In the end, I rewrote that book as a new, infinitely better novel called The Directive. Though that editorial call was a stomach-droppingly awful moment, I am grateful for it.
Those books saved my life, and, at least as it felt at the time, they nearly killed me. So go pick up Story and Save the Cat. Re-watch your favorite Hollywood movies and marvel. Make charts. Do whatever it takes to tame your first stories and get the basics down. Then trust yourself as you leave them behind like training wheels. Surprise yourself. Tell your characters they’re in charge and do what you can to keep up.
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