Postcards From the Margins: Help for Plotting My (Your?) Next Novel

Screenwriting 101 by Film Crit Hulk, available on (
Screenwriting 101 by Film Crit Hulk

I’m getting help for plotting my next novel from an unexpected source. Screenwriting 101, by Film Crit Hulk is available as an e-book on and is introduced online in this link to the Badass Digest website. I write novels, not screenplays, but the main idea here–the superiority of a five-act structure over the traditional three–works for stories of all kinds. And it really seems to be working for me as I set out to draft my next novel.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t make the Act I-Act II-Act III/beginning-middle-end thing work over a 200+-page manuscript. I understand rising action but I’ve felt I needed more help with plot points and ways to use them to drive the story forward. (I will confess here, I suspect to no one’s surprise, that I am MFA-less and a firm believer in the idea that good or bad writing speaks for itself.) More confessions: I am determined to at least broadly outline the plot of my present WIP, a second long manuscript attempt. Outlining plot is a step in the writing process I have previously resisted.

Why this change of heart? Don’t we of the literary fiction bias prefer that plot be driven by character? Isn’t outlining a plot a sure-fire way to box characters into rigid, stereotypical roles, to obliterate the sense of wonder and discovery in both the story’s writing and reading?

I don’t know yet.

But I do know a few more things than when I started writing ten years ago. Some examples:

I like stories with page-turning, edge-of-your-seat plot. I’ve been on a reading tear lately, finishing Anthony Doerr’s most recent book, All the Light We Cannot See and then his earlier novel, About Grace, in the last few weeks. Comparing About Grace and All the Light We Cannot See, any reader will appreciate Doerr’s language and seamlessly incorporated research. Both novels address science and all manners of sacred: what’s not to like? And yet, I read All the Light We Cannot See with considerably greater engagement than the earlier novel. I think this is because his more recent work is more tightly plotted.

My best-published short story was written with more attention to plot. I had just come home from the summer 2011 Tin House Writer’s Conference, where my workshop leader and mentor was the amazing Ben Percy. Ben emphasized the “can’t go back” nature of a good plot point, and ratcheting up the stakes of each successive mini-conflict on the way to the major crisis. I consciously did this in my story, “Seizure.” It came out in the spring 2014 issue of Ploughshares. Lucky, of course, but also maybe my best story to date.

It is difficult and time-consuming to insert “more plot” into an already-written story. Every writer dreads these words, most likely seen in an agent’s rejection letter: “The story lost some momentum…” or “My interest flagged…”. I should have seen them coming in earlier versions of my first novel manuscript. With A LOT of time and work and guidance (i.e., massive revision) I have made changes to the novel that drive the story, that have imbued it with that “I couldn’t put it down” quality we all love to read. Still, how much easier would that have been if I paid better attention to plot from the start?

So that’s why I’ve been thinking more about structuring plot. And that’s why, when I read Screenwriting 101 by Film Crit Hulk, I paid particular attention to his criticism of three-part story structure and how it too often leads to a bad second act–that loss of momentum we all dread.

Enter the five-part story structure. I’ll describe it briefly, here, but do yourself a favor and read at least the online article cited above.

Part One: Intro and description of previously existing conflict. This works for me as a place to provide timely and engaging back story–back story with a momentum of its own.

Part Two: Central event that challenges or deeply worsens the main conflict (usually, notes Film Critic Hulk, where “What the story is about,” becomes clear. Identifying, magnifying, repeating what the story is about, a la Charles Baxter’s “rhyming action” in Burning Down the House, is one of my favorite tasks as a storyteller).

Part Three: Turning point–a spurring incident or action that makes the conflict infinitely more complicated. I like these ideas of Film Crit Hulk’s: What happens here has to deeply affect the seriousness of the main conflict and dramatically alter its direction.

Part Four: Short, fast, dramatic downward spiral. Film Crit Hulk describes this as the place where characters make too-rapid, half-baked, poorly conceived decisions (so much fun to write!). The point here is to expose deep character flaws that will bring the characters down or make them succeed.

Part Five: “The summation of everything,” says Film Crit Hulk. Perfect. Just the way I like to wrap a story up.

I’ve hope I’ve made it clear how much of the content of this post I owe to the Badass Digest website linkScreenwriting 101 by Film Crit Hulk. It’s possible the success I feel plotting my new novel in a five-part story format is that the story I have in mind is particularly well-suited to this format. Still, I love it when writers and writing professionals help each other out on the interwebs.

Thank you, Film Crit Hulk. And you’re welcome, to anyone else for whom this is helpful.





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