The third in a series about finding your writing process, continuing with borrowing wisdom from the big screen to write your novel, using the 8-Sequence Method.
The 8-Sequence Method is nothing new. In fact, it began when cinema began, when movies were only as long as film reels could hold, about 15 minutes of rolled plastic. When they figured out how to quickly change reels in the projection room, the movies we know now were born; and even today when reels are rare, they are designed to give us an interesting turn of the plot every fifteen minutes or so. (If you write screenplays, you might want to check out Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach.)
It just works. Fifteen minutes is just long enough to give us some fun with the current state of affairs, but about the time we’re looking for something new to happen. Boom, the main character falls down and must reassess and set out on a new plan.
Why eight sequences? The diplomatic answer is that two hours (8 times 15 minutes) is as long as the average viewer can sit focusing on one thing, while I think it has more to do with the size of the human bladder (have you seen the size of drinks in cinemas?). It does seem to be the perfect length though.
Using the 8-Sequence Method to write novels isn’t new either, with more than one writing book seeming to claim the idea. One such book, by Alexandra Sokoloff, (the first I found on this method) is so comprehensive on the subject, it is a veritable reference book on novel writing. It includes some great exercises along the way, too, but the best part for me is how she breaks down the plot into its most powerful components to make a great story. She does so using the same sequence structure used in film.
As expected, these sequences once more dovetail with the ubiquitous 3-Act Structure, where every other sequence begins on an Act boundary (Act II breaking at the Midpoint).
A simplified version of the 8 Sequence Method is pictured here, with each sequence propelling the main character in some inevitable direction, only to hit a new challenge at the end of each sequence, propelling them in a new direction. Each sequence is a little story on it’s own, with a minor climax at the end; the ones at the Act breaks even more life-changing for the character.
Sokoloff not only breaks down the importance of these sequences and how to set them up for those of us who like using index cards, but also delves deeply into the dramatic “elements” that usually appear in each sequence, elements audiences have grown to expect from reading and viewing the mass of work that came before; things that make a story satisfying. She defines these elements not just for the plot, but for character development, setting, theme, plants and reveals, and a bunch more stuff too numerous to mention here.
I suggest getting her book, Story Structure Basics: How to write better books by learning from the movies* to see for yourself. I keep mine handy as a checklist for revising my own drafts.
Oh, wow… I just realized she now has a series of writing books out on the same subject–and they’re very inexpensive for what you get.
I guess I know what I’ll be reading for a bit.
The second in a series about finding your writing process, continuing with evolving your story ideas from one powerful sentence to a completed novel, using the Snowflake Method.
Here’s a writing process we used in just about every intermediate and advanced writing class I attended in college (and I must have taken them all), from creating fiction to essays to screenplays, and it really did the trick to get us writing.
We never named it out loud in class, but it is the practice of evolving ideas by expanding them outward, like a snowflake. And it’s lovely. In fact there’s a wonderful Snowflake Metaphor, where the simplest evolution of a triangle (triangles again!) becomes the most complex structure of nature itself . . . in the form of a Fractal: a creature with a finite area, but an infinitely large perimeter. Much the way your own brain makes space for new ideas on its rippling surface, you can use those ideas for your story by expanding the perimeter of one simple story idea.
So many of the writing books on my shelf also seem to use this technique in some form or another, I presume because it simply makes sense. Stick with me Pantsers, you’ll probably like this. Like in class, most of the time we just did it without going into the how or why of it.
But one veteran author, Randy Ingermason, did, and he calls it–appropriately enough–the Snowflake Method. Ingermason came up with 10 steps he himself goes through to evolve an idea for a book into the actual book, by building outward.
Basically these steps are:
- Start with a one-sentence description of the story – what screenwriters call the Logline. Many of them swear this is the most important sentence you will ever write. There are whole books about Loglines.
- Expand Step 1 into a paragraph – Ingermason writes 4 sentences here: 3 disasters and the ending. They conform, once more, with the 3 Act structure mentioned before.
- Write a one-page summary of characters in the story.
- Expand each sentence in Step 2 into a paragraph.
- Expand each character in Step 3 into a one-page synopsis.
- Expand each paragraph in Step 4 into a full page.
- Expand Step 5 into separate Character Charts, which he describes in more detail in his book.
- Expand Step 6 into a list of scenes.
- (Optional) Expand Step 8 into a Chapter Outline.
- Write the First Draft!
Ingermason describes the form and purpose of these steps with a lot more detail, as well as how they build that ever-present triangular plot structure, but hopefully I’ve given you the gist of it. Notice how he alternates between plotting and character development here, which makes a lot of sense to me on a few levels:
- Character development (character arc) is the backbone and heart of every good story.
- Shifting back and forth between story and characters gives you a break and a little distance, which
- Gives your subconscious room to come up with even more awesome ideas!
Throughout this entire process, Ingermason makes it very clear that the material you generate here is mutable and fluid. In fact, one major benefit of doing it this way is to identify the holes and logic-bloopers that typically only become evident after the First Draft; an ugly mess to revise after the fact. But here you can catch them early and fix them as you go, quickly adjusting backwards through the steps–all the way back to the Logline, if need be.
For Pantsers and Outliners
The Snowflake Method isn’t an outlining structure meant to constrict you, though it ends up creating a lovely map in the end. Instead it is a liberating idea-generating house party, where the beer cans and bottles somehow end up in the right recycling bin by themselves. Uhm… okay, not my best metaphor, but it is cool to have so many ideas grow on each other and be able to know exactly where to put them, rather than that big ugly pile of notes you have to bribe yourself with chocolates just to get through.
And here’s another cool benefit: when you do get to Step 10, make sure you sit down next to a NaNoRiMo person when you start, because:
- You are going to write FAST!! A Snowflaker already knows exactly where they are going, with all the details of every scene. You’ll have to get a water cooled keyboard to keep up with you.
- The resulting draft is going to be TIGHT, unlike the meandering monster the NaNo writer will have to deal with at the end. (I’m not dissing NaNo-writers at all–I respect that they are at least writing, unlike a few “writers” I’ve met. Including me at times…)
- Writers Block will be scared to death of you, since you will be too busy to be impressed by it. Poor thing.
Hopefully this gives you a tantalizing taste of the Snowflake Method. If you’d like to learn more about it, check out Randy Ingermason’s book, How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method (Advanced Fiction Writing Book 1)*.
Next Week: Alexandra Sokoloff’s 8-Sequence Structure.
The first in a series about finding your writing process, starting with writing toward the basic shape of all successful stories, the Basic Plot Structure.
I thought I’d start simple and work outward to the more complex, since that’s the most sane way to write stories themselves. In fact, it is the basis of one popular process I’ll go into later called the Snowflake Method. But first, let’s look at one underlying process or structure that seems to be common to all successful stories: the plot structure.
Whether you’re a Pantser or an Outliner, eventually a story must be honed into the right shape that is recognizable as a satisfying story. Any writer will already know this shape, resembling a triangle or a mountain, which our hero must climb to find their Inner Hero. It involves a Setup to get us up to speed on our fictional world, an Inciting Incident to rip our main character out of their comfort zone, a long series of ever-increasing obstructions for them to climb over, a Climax where they figure out what they needed to do from the start, and a Resolution where they find their new life.
Whether you support the whole idea of writing to a structure or form, thanks to all the movies and books your audience has watched and read already, this is the form of story they are already expecting to see. If we deviate too far from it, we run the risk of our work hitting the wall (literally) or a trash can before they finish reading it. Luckily it’s a pretty open and forgiving structure.
Note the Three-Act structure laid out beneath that triangle. This is also a pretty common part of an audience’s expectations, though they may not consciously register the passing of each Act. The Acts are more a measure of turning points that should (some say “must”) happen for the hero in a successful story (and just about every movie you’ve ever watched and enjoyed). We can talk about Acts later on.
This shape doesn’t just happen–it must be designed. Outliners start out with this shape in mind and plan their scenes to “rise to the challenge” their heroes will have to face. Pantsers, like their fellow audience members, already “feel” this shape and roughly write toward it, only to later revise and nudge things into the right places. Neither way is better than the other, of course, except for the writers using it.
Whatever works for you is the way to go. That one thing we must remember, or nothing that follows will seem wondrous … oops–I slipped into Scrooge territory there. Sorry.
It is interesting to note that the triangle above used to be drawn more like an isosceles triangle, before the Internet and a million action movies jaded us to the plodding pace old movies and books now must seem to younger audiences (well, to me, too, anymore). Especially the beginnings and endings.
Back then, as you can see in this Freytag graph, beginning setups were much longer, and resolutions more gradual. Nowadays, we’re clever enough to do the Setup as part of the Inciting Incident and the Resolution is practically melded into the Climax itself. It’s elegant and makes a lot of sense, especially when dinosaurs are roaming about eating everyone.
As far as processes go, this is pretty basic stuff, almost to the point of being subconscious anymore to the practiced writer. But it is upon this model that most other processes are built, or at least target, so I thought it best to put it out there for those just starting out.
For a much more in-depth exploration of the importance of story structure, I recommend reading Super Structure* by James Scott Bell. This book is not only friendly and fun to read, but immediately breaks the myth that writing to structure confines your process; instead freeing you to write your story faster and in a way that will connect more solidly and emotionally with your audience.
Next week: The Snowflake Method.
As a longtime writer, I’ve found facets and depth in that word, Process; especially when I realized it means something different for each writer.
One big chunk of my own Process involves a constant battle with the ever-present Resistance, which deserves a blog post all its own. But beyond that, I believe even marginally successful writers develop their own habits, tools, and practices that help get them from idea to completion more quickly.
Process seems to be a constantly evolving critter that is unique to your own personality and work style. That said, I’ve found it helps to try other writers’ processes along the way to expand and invigorate your own. I’ve tried a bunch of writing strategies and tools from far more established writers than myself along the way and gleaned a little or a lot from each. So I thought I’d share a handful of the ones I found most intriguing and useful over the next few weeks.
I’ll try to remain as subjective as possible (concealing my own personal preference), so I don’t bias your own evaluation of them. Your process must come from you. I’ve found in my own research into process that it seems almost mandatory for a writer writing about writing to sell their process as “The Process,” perhaps from pressure from their book editors; but it is obvious they all can’t be right.
Go ahead and try out different ones, but take them all with a grain of salt and observe how it affects your projects’ productivity. You’ll know when something works for you, even if it is just a small piece of their puzzle. Don’t let anyone bully you into going only with their way of doing things. Take it from me, I’ve wasted bunches of time wrestling with being “pure” to someone else’s complete process. You have to be true to yourself.
If you have a favorite process or tool that works for you, or would like me to investigate one here, please leave a note in the comments below. In the meantime, take in as much as you can from other writers and let your subconscious piece together its own Method of Success. It usually knows what it’s doing.
There’s nothing like a puppy face to make the world a better place, especially on days you really need one. For example…
Have you ever had someone unexpectedly completely ruin your day?
The sun is shining, you’re driving somewhere fun, life is good. Oh, here’s a merge up ahead… You turn on your signal to let someone know you’d appreciate a place to squeeze into the highway queue–
When some arrogant dick who looks like he eats kittens for breakfast stares at you through his window as he takes your signal as an invitation to not only cut you off, but slow down and try to drive you into the barrier ahead, staring at you through his passenger window the whole time.
The road troll. A person who goes around attempting legal hit and runs for his own amusement. Big city people know this vermin well, but we try not to think about them, because they suck.
I disappointed this one by not dying, but he won in the end: an hour later I was still upset about it. The idea of such a person, roaming the streets being inhuman to people, for fun. The sunshine had lost it’s shine, the springlike air seemed somehow grubby, my fellow humans felt less trustworthy, and I felt like I was having a Bad Day barely before the day started.
Thanks to adrenaline and broken expectations about common morality, this sort of feeling is truly hard to break out of, especially for the more sensitive of us. Other, tougher souls probably shrug it off like Portland rainwater, but I wonder if even they can feel it inside, nibbling away at their happiness.
Oddly, once you get into this funk, the day seems to follow your revised expectations, becoming a self-fulfilled prophecy. A Bad Day will be had, whether more bad stuff happens or not, while the regular stuff just takes on a bad feeling. We change our world by how we observe it, seeing the shadows instead of the light. There is the potential for good and bad in everything, and we can bring it out simply by focusing on it.
Thanks to our caveman evolution, we’re wired to see the bad things as far more important, simply to avoid getting eaten. Five yummy venison meals are great, but it only takes one hungry saber-tooth tiger to ruin that whole week of happiness. Why do you think it takes a dozen very expensive roses to say “I’m sorry”?
We don’t need this instinct as much now, but it’s wired in, so it often takes three to five good events to offset one bad one.
So, there I was coming out of a restaurant over an hour later, still in a funk. As I approached my car, an SUV was pulling into the spot next to mine, driven by an older lady. She noticed my approach and graciously held up pulling all the way in to give me access to my car. She even smiled and said hello. I smiled back and said Hi, but I was still too funked up to put much feeling into it (bad people are contagious).
But as I walked past, I looked over and saw a little black Terrier sitting in the passenger seat beside her, looking back at me with that little puppy face…
Suddenly the day kind of hiccuped: sunlight spattered everything with a twang, a breeze tousled my hair in playful slow motion, the smiling lady became a neighbor, the Earth’s bearings got a new squirt of grease. The universe very, very quietly said “boop”.
It was a while later I recalled being cut off by the dickhead, and when I did, I thought to myself “karma, do your stuff” and forgot all about him.
But I can still remember that puppy face many hours later. It was the expression of a creature who embodies innocence, whose only concern in the world is whether it was giving as much love as it could at this moment. Because a puppy can only live Right Now. That’s all that matters: Love, Right Now.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t get what I mean (I only do enough) or even agree with it. All I can say is, when you’re feeling doubt, anger, sadness, or a loss of faith … like many do these days: all you need is a puppy face.
Kittens and bunnies also work in a pinch.
If you’re curious, visit one at a shelter near you. Take one home if you see what I mean. Don’t let all that love go to waste.