Plotting a book is just like plotting for a movie. Do you want to have a story that keeps your audience at the edge of their seats? Find a favorite film and then break it down according to Syd Field’s paradigm for script writers.
Shakespeare knew what he was doing when he devised the three act structure. Following the greatest, Field divides his story into three parts: Act I (the beginning), Act II (the middle), and Act III (the end).
These three acts are then broken into plot points. They’re not just the points you would find in a math class, they ask questions of you. Leave you searching your head to find out who are your characters, what do they really want, and how far are they willing to go get it. Do not be afraid to build characters who fight tooth and nail to achieve their goals. It only makes the story interesting.
Let us break down Field’s paradigm using one of my favorite Disney Movies, The Princess and The Frog.
Act I: The set up
Plan on landing a big agent? Well just like in a film, you want to answer three big questions in the first thirty pages. Readers need to know the who, the what, and the where. Start in the middle of the action, and do not keep secrets.
We learn Tiana is a hardworking waitress from a lower class family in New Orleans. She has dreams of owning her own restaurant, but guess what? Sweetie does not have a dime.
On the other hand, we have Prince Naveen who has been cut off from his family for being a lazy rascal. Desperately wanting to maintain his lavish lifestyle he has two choices: marry a wealthy wife or find a job.
Somewhere around page 20 – 30, you’re going to have plot point I, the inciting incident in your story propelling everyone into the second act. The key in the ignition, it is the event that really starts your characters on their journey.
When Prince Naveen discovers a dirty voodoo witch doctor, he is turned into a frog. Knowing the only thing that can turn him back is a princess’ kiss, he goes in search of one. His blind need leads him to recklessly mistaking poor Tiana for a princess. Entangled in the spell, she becomes a frog herself.
Act II: The conflict
It is pertinent to understand truly who and what your characters want in Act II. Then you can create conflict that keeps your characters from truly getting what they want. Conflict is a series of events forcing the characters to change their behavior to achieve their goal.
Tiana wants a restaurant.
Prince Naveen wants a wealthy princess.
As Act II unfolds we learn more about why the characters want what they want, we see them have to struggle for what they want, and how their struggles bring them closer to the Midpoint. Think of the midpoint as the climax, the point of no return, the event that spins your story into a new direction. It can be a surprise your characters or audience were never expecting.
Now this is a judgment call, but I believe the midpoint is when Prince Naveen and Tiana fall in love.
We also have Plot Point II, or what Field likes to call the crises. This event causes our protagonists to act. It is the gritty moment, the decision maker, when all things become a matter of life and death. Whatever happens here must propel our protagonists into their final glory.
The voodoo man is able to capture Prince Naveen and lay a trap of deception, breaking Tiana’s heart and turning her against Prince Naveen.
Act III: The resolution
Whatever has happened in plot point II has led your characters to the final showdown. We watch as the characters make decisions that bring the story to a close. Then we see the balance being restored. Whether happy or sad, come what may I say. Just do not let it be a cliff hanger. If it has to be, make sure the only question you leave unanswered in your story is what happens next.
Racing against time to break the voodoo man’s spell, Tiana must fight for love and self-respect. All soon goes well. It is a Disney movie after all.
Examining Field’s paradigm helps me to think in terms of action when writing my novel. A great tool, it keeps me focused. I hope it inspires you to read his books on screenwriting, learning more information on how to structure great novels.