Friday, February 25, 2011

The Sequence Method

I've never been a big fan of the III Act structure.

Not because it isn't logical, because yes, it is a logical way of breaking up any kind of story. What I don't like about the III Acts is that they're too broad; they cover too much ground all at once. And also, they don't cover transitional stages.

Some writers break it down even further, allowing for transitions like the black moment, or the turning point. But again I struggle with this. Every novel is a little different. They don't always fit into these pre-prescribed steps, and sometimes, one or two steps are out of the 'official' order because I have two different plot threads to resolve, or whatever.

Other writers don't focus on steps, and instead, they focus on chapters. This chapter has the inciting incident, this chapter is downtime, etc. But the chapter focus is too immersed for me--I can't see the big picture. The semi-big picture.

Chapters are like puzzle pieces, but one section of an image can span many pieces. And this is the way I think. In my head, certain chapters are connected in groups, but not evenly numbered groups. I need some mental way to connect them. I have to know how to group those puzzle pieces into categories--these are all the pieces I need to make the little boy, the rock, the tree.

Once upon a time, I heard some amazing writer use what she called 'the block method' which grouped certain sequences of action into large blocks. Although I'm not sure exactly how it went, I do know each block had something to do with getting the characters from Point A to Point B. Each Point B was the Point A of the next block.

That method really stuck with me. I tweaked it, I modified. I found myself breaking the blocks up, not by plot thread destinations (Point A and B) but into sequences of action. And that's what I've stuck with ever since.

For example.

In MIRRORPASS, I definitely do have a III Act structure. In Act One, Aria falls to Earth and comes to understand how her kind are treated here. In Act Two, Aria goes on a journey/on the run to try and find her crystal, which is threatening her main story goal of getting home. In Act Three, the worst happens, and Aria goes through the climax.

Way too broad.

However, when I try to use a detailed outlining method based on logical events (inciting incident, introduction of story goal, etc,) I end up splitting chapters and even scenes to try and follow those groups. Really, it's horrid. I can't even bear to show it.

But when I follow the sequence method, my story goes something like this:

  • Falling to earth and recovery sequence (Act One, inciting incident)
  • Travel sequence
  • Capture & NASA sequence (transition somewhere into Act Two)
  • Depression sequence
  • Reporter sequence (turning point)
  • Gameplan sequence (transition somewhere into Act Three)
  • On the run & capture sequence (dark moment in here)
  • Compound sequence (climax in here)
  • Recovery and resolution sequence

Although I have nine sequences, I have twenty-nine chapters. They're not evenly split. My depression sequence is only three chapters, but my reporter sequence is six chapters. That point doesn't matter, though, because I'm not trying to break it into arbitrary groups.

The reason this works for me is because it allows me to group the progress of the story.

Each sequence introduces and resolves one main concern that propels us toward our story goal. Every novel will have different events and different sequences. But breaking it up this way, I can look at the estimate time where major events--like my transition into different acts, my inciting incident, turning point, and climax--all occur. I don't need to start my second act exactly 40% of the way in. I just need to know it's around 40% of the way in. I can look and get a general sense of the pacing. I can get a feel for which sequences are weak or out of place.

And the thing I love most about this is it's personalized. Instead of labeling the steps of my novel "Inciting Incident," which is generic and can mean one scene or one section depending on the reader's opinion, I can label it something meaningful.

They're not brilliant names. (Depression sequence, fun right? NASA & Capture sequence? Sounds like an action movie cliche.) But these names bring up an entire series of events for me.

When I say NASA & Capture, I know that this is when Aria goes is ambushed, that she is taken to a NASA facility, goes through rounds of interrogation, learns a series of important things that raise her stakes, gets introduced to a plot thread, makes a bid for freedom, and in the process commits an act that sends her into a depression and ultimately affects her behavior for the rest of the novel.

I don't really need to know what the wordcount is for this sequence, or exactly how many chapters is in it. All I need to know is that this sequence sets up the entire middle of the novel.

E.L. Doctorow once said,

"Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

I am definitely a 'headlights' writer. And this process, for me, is each section of road I can see with my headlights. Maybe this is you too--or maybe you have your own way of tracking the progress of your novel? Maybe you are willing to share for the greater good of all?

Before I finish, two teeny tiny announcements. One, I have reached (and exceeded) 100 followers! You guys make my happy. My blog birthday is coming up in March, and because there's so many of you, I'm thinking it's time for an Amazing Blog Birthday Contest. Details to come.

Announcement two: I've added a MIRRORPASS page to the blog! Check it out, leave comments, spread the MIRRORPASS love. I'm working on adding an About and Works of Writing page sometime soon. This is a big step for me, and I'm pretty excited.

Truly and always,
-Creative A

I am an intellectual and property rights freak. Therefore:
Copyright © Creative A 2011


Ryan Sullivan said...

I believe I've always used this method without ever thinking about it. And it works for me.

Creative A said...

Well hey, that's pretty cool!


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