Using notecards to evaluate novel structure

Up until a month ago, I was happily muddling through my second draft. Although I knew there were problems with it, it wasn’t until I was about half-way through, that I thought it would be helpful to sit down and reassess the structure and elements of my story as a whole.

After many hours of brainstorming, I concluded, in short, that:

  • My main character was boring – her arc was weak and she was, let’s just say, forgettable.
  • The subplots weren’t adding to the story.
  • There were many plot holes.
  • There were also several unnecessary scenes that I had become attached to (because I had spent SO many hours working on them, I couldn’t bear to get rid of them).

I thought about several methods that I could use to remedy the above issues. I started off by researching character development, how to write good subplots and finally decided that the extra scenes I loved so much had to go.

Although I had made progress doing this, I felt overwhelmed. I wanted to see all of the elements of my novel plotted out – I wanted to see how the character arc linked with the relationship subplot, how the character arc impacted the main plot and how my character changed over time. If I could physically see all of these elements in play, I felt that it would be easier for me to weave them together in a coherent order. I started off by doing this on my laptop, in a table that looked something like this:

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.06.31

This was helpful for a time, but sometimes you just need something physical to wrap your brain around. Cue, the notecards:

IMG_2043

You have probably heard about using flash cards to outline a novel. There are many good articles online that explain exactly how to do this (try this and this). These methods are mainly to help you when you first start planning your novel, but they can also help if you just want to see your novel as a whole, in order to move bits around and assess whether or not the structure you have currently is working.

Although the above methods suggest only using about 60 cards, I decided to break this down further. I ended up with well over 150 cards, and not enough floor space to lay them out on!

What I did

I had four colours of card:

  • Blue
  • Green
  • Yellow
  • Pink

I dedicated each colour to a certain element of the novel:

Green – Main plot events
Pink – Character relationships and subplots
Yellow – Character arc
Blue – Other

To further explain:

On the GREEN cards I wrote (among other elements):

  • Each element of my three act structure
  • Opening scenes
  • The inciting event
  • Each of the three disasters
  • Character introductions
  • Character reactions to the main events.
  • Character reflections on the main events.
  • Main scenes.

On the PINK cards, I wrote any events and interactions that happen between the main characters.

For example, my novel has four main characters, each of whom have varied relationships with each other. Two of the females in my novel end up falling out – so on a few of the pink cards, I have made a note to include:

  • ‘The rising tension between X and X’.

Finally, towards the end of act two, these rising tension cards make way for the:

  • ‘X & X have a huge argument over X.’

That way, the argument doesn’t come out of nowhere.

You can also include:

  • Any elements of a romantic subplot
  • Scenes that show the changing dynamics within relationships and friendships.
  • If two characters are falling in love, you can include the increasing romantic tension between them.

On the YELLOW cards I detailed my character arc:

  • How the character is at the beginning of the novel.
  • Various actions showing how the character acts at the beginning of the novel.
  • Introducing any fears the character has.
  • Introducing any coping mechanisms that character employs.
  • Events where the character has to face her fear, preferably varying in seriousness. Say she is scared of spiders, have her face the fear several times, and in varying degrees of ‘scariness’, until she finally faces the entire fear head-on.
  • Anything that will affect the character arc – the impact character for example.
  • How the character is at the end of the novel.
  • The character’s epiphany.
  • The character’s choice in the climax.
  • Elements of characterisation for the main character.
  • You get the idea….

And finally, on the BLUE cards, I detailed any other event that I thought was important and didn’t want to forget.

  • Anything that needs foreshadowing – so if the protagonist is going to use a bow and arrow in the climax, it must be introduced, preferably a couple of times, near the beginning of the novel. So I would take a blue card, cut it into however many pieces, and write ‘introduce bow and arrow’ or ‘protagonist uses bow and arrow here.’
  • Any element of scene setting.
  • Backstory and flashbacks that are relevant to the plot and character building.
  • Elements of characterisation.
  • Resolutions to the subplots or resolutions to any of the character relationships. For this reason, a lot of these cards will come at the end of our plotting.

What now?

You can either create the cards as you go along (this is what I did), or you can create your cards and then arrange them. The beauty of this method is that you can move things around, take bits out and alter elements, without having to try and wrap your head around pages and pages of on-screen text.

IMG_1925

Once you are happy with the layout, you can then take a photo of the layout, or do what I did and re-type it into a word document, which you can then follow when you write your drafts. The only slightly annoying thing about using the notecards is, unless you have a large surface or floor that you can leave them on, you will spend a lot of time tidying away and re-laying the cards (unless you figure out your structure in one sitting). To ensure that I didn’t ruin the order of the cards, I collected them up chapter by chapter and bull-dog clipped them together.

IMG_2049

Of course, bear in mind that each novel is extremely different, so use the above steps merely as guidance!

Happy writing! Let me know if you find this method useful at all!


Planning – the bigger picture

When you first begin your initial research on how to plan and write a book, there are countless useful blogs (listed at the bottom of this post) and articles on the elements that make a good story, in particular:

  • The three act structure
  • The use of three disasters
  • Conflict (of which there are many types)
  • Character arc and premise
  • Goals (story goals, life goals and scene goals)

In isolation, the theories relating to the above are pretty digestible, however, they do not work on their own. Each theory interweaves with the intention of coming together and creating a well thought out story with a clear purpose. The complexity of this is overwhelming and personally made me want to tear my hair out.

Being a designer, I like to visualize things, so one morning when my head felt like it was going to explode, I whacked out a pen and began to scribble. I was on a mission to work out how each of the following theories slotted together to create the bigger picture, and to find a way to convey this in the simplest way possible. This is what I came up with. (Please note, this is based on the three act structure).

IMAG7048 Three act structure overview-01

And this is it jazzed up and redesigned a little for you guys…

Three act structure overview v2-02-02

This graphic aims to give an overall picture and act as reference for those of you who need a friendly reminder of how all your planning fits together. Further planning tools and printables will be provided for each of the sections to further assist your planning process at a later date.

To those of you who are new to the writing world, I will dissect and explain the graphic in more detail below to aid understanding. Those of you who are already familiar with what it all means, feel free to take it and use it whenever you need a little reminder or clarity.


Acts, disasters and scenes

Three act structure overview v2-02

The three act structure is generally the main structure that your novel will follow. It is a well known and respected structure, used often in novels and play writing. Each act has a specific ‘purpose’ which will be discussed in further detail below. Each act is also made up of smaller scenes. Each scene takes the protagonist one step closer to the story goal. Within the three act structure there are the three disasters. The disasters again have a specific purposes.

Act 1 and first disaster– Act one is roughly one quarter of your story and should set up the story and introduce the reader to the characters and the world in which they live in. It should also introduce us to the problems that the protagonist needs to solve.

At the end of act one comes the first disaster. This disaster acts to commit the protagonist to the story (he knows what he wants, his goal and he goes after it) and bring him to the point of no return.

Act 2 and the second and third disaster – Act two takes up approx. 2 quarters of your novel. The first half of act two (the second quarter of your novel) should see your protagonist’s reaction to the first disaster and begin his quest to the goal. The second disaster strikes at the end of the second quarter (half way through the second act). This disaster is bigger than the first one and acts as a major set back to the protagonist reaching his goal. The third and final disaster comes at the end of act two. This forces a decision/ a change of mind-set that will set up the third and final act.

Act 3 – Act three presents the climax, resolution and presents whether the protagonist reaches his story goal. It is not always a bad thing if he doesn’t, as throughout the process he could realise that what he thought he wanted, is not what he needed. Act three ties up lose ends.


Goals

Three act structure overview v2-03

There are three kinds of goals; story goals life goals and scene goals.

The story goal is what the protagonist wants the most and the problem that he needs to solve. This could be an external physical achievement such as graduating, or internal such as a change of mind-set or attitude.

The story goal does not only affect the protagonist. it is likely to affect the rest of the characters too. For example, if the protagonists goal is to save the life of his wife, but he fails, her family, friends and children will also suffer the consequences. When the stakes are high, the readers care more about whether he achieves it.

The life goals of the characters can be totally separate to the story goal.  For example, the protagonists story goal is to save the life of his wife but his life goal is to become a professional trapeze artist.  He has ambitions and goals that make him a memorable and realistic character. He is living in a multi-dimensional world with hopes and dreams of his own before the first disaster strikes.

Each scene within a story must have a purpose. This is where scene goals come in. In each scene your character must want something, which is then met with conflict (see below). Each scene acts as a step towards the story goal.


The role of conflict

Three act structure overview v2-04

As the graphic suggests conflict comes not only as the three major disasters, but is also present at scene level. Scene level conflict is directly related to scene goals, because it acts as the opposing force.

Conflict could be one of two things: internal or external. Internal conflict may mean your character is battling internal emotions or feelings. External means he is up against something physical such as another person, the weather, time etc.

Also bear in mind that conflict does not have to be anything huge. It could be as minor as your protagonist missing the bus – even such a seemingly insignificant event will produce a setback, pulling the character further away from his story goal.

Be sure that your character does not lose or win all battles. There needs to be a mix of both highs and lows to ensure tension and avoid predictability. 


 Character arc

Three act structure overview v2-05

Put simply, your characters arc is the journey and changes your character makes between the beginning of the story and the end of the story. Your characters begins at point A, and ends at point B. ‘Stuff’  must happen between these points that incite and create this change. If there is no journey, you will find it hard/impossible to progress your story.

Veronica Sicoe  offers a detailed explanation of different types of character arcs here 
James R Hull  offers an interesting insight into the difference between growth and change here
K.M. Weiland. explains in great detail how to write different types of character arcs here 

What is a premise? There are diverging opinions on premise, what it is and how useful it can be. The following explanation is my own interpretation of it and what I see it to be. The premise as I understand it and as I refer to it in the graphic, is what the protagonist learns throughout the book – the end result of his character arc. Examples such as ‘Lifes too short to worry’ ‘If you love her let her go’ or ‘I am good enough’ to name a few.

It is important that you don’t get too bogged down with trying to find a premise that is moral and deep, or forcing your story to fit around a premise from the start. You may start with the premise and go from there, but equally you may not even know exactly what your character learns until you finish the book.  What is certain and important is that your character will go through changes throughout the course of the book, and this change is a vital element to consider in the greater context of your novel’s overall structure.

Similar explanations of premise can be found here and here.


I hope you find the graphic useful, and it would be great to hear your comments!  

Everything I know I learnt from a variety of valuable sources (listed below). Undoubtedly, I will be returning to many of these sources time and time again for further guidance. Check them out!. 

http://blog.janicehardy.com

http://www.writing-world.com/

http://www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com/

http://www.be-a-better-writer.com/

http://www.writersdigest.com/

http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com

http://www.veronicasicoe.com/

Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy