Exercise #30: The Novel-Shaped Story II
Antoine Wilson, C.L. Clark, Jesse Ball, Blake Snyder, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jennifer Schuessler
It’s finals week here for me here in Arizona, which means I’ve made it to the end of another academic year, my tenth as a professor. Thankfully, my classes this semester were among the most enjoyable I’ve taught, which made for a nice way to finish my first decade in the dig. Now I’m looking forward to slipping into summer, and to focusing on finishing the new draft of my next novel as I emerge from the launch of Refuse to Be Done.
Speaking of Refuse to Be Done, you may have noticed it’s been hard to buy a copy for the past few weeks! We blew through the first printing, but more copies are making their way into the world as we speak: your local indie bookstore would love to reserve one for you and to let you know when it arrives, if you’d like. Meanwhile, my book tour continues this month with a few more events, if you’d like to catch me before my schedule slows down:
May 2, virtual, 9pm ET: City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco, CA, with Kirstin Chen and Jac Jemc
May 23, virtual, 8pm ET: Refuse to Be Done craft lecture at StoryStudio Chicago (book included with registration)
As always, I hope your writing is going well, and that you and yours are happy and healthy. Be safe, be kind, and have fun with your reading and writing!
What I’m Reading:
Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson. Wilson’s latest is pure enjoyment, a smart satire about the art world and an exploration of what exactly it is we’re taking responsibility for when we save someone else’s life. It’s also got a pretty perfect ending, which I won’t say anything else about so as to avoid spoiling. The audiobook of this is also great, if you’re looking for something new to listen to.
The Unbroken by C.L. Clark. One thing SFF does well is exploring how we navigate our complicity inside systems of harm or oppression—I think of Octavia Butler or N.K. Jemisin—and The Unbroken does great work exploring this subject too, this time from both sides of a conflict. The best new fantasy novel I’ve read so far this year.
Autoportrait by Jesse Ball. Ball is one of my favorite writers, and this memoir written in the style of Édouard Levé’s book of the same name is a great read. Ball apparently wrote it in a single day, so I read it cover to cover in a day too. It’s not out until later this year, but here’s a favorite bit, as a teaser:
Reading the necessary things, my few favorites, is always the deepest pleasure, or not even a pleasure so much as the ongoing reconstruction of my moving domicile. Like a bagworm making its bag, I read in order to effect a shield. Now and then my face protrudes to bite at a leaf.
Exercise #30: The Novel-Shaped Story II
Way back in January 2021, I wrote an exercise called “The Novel-Shaped Story,” which presented a way to use the three-act formula from Blake Snyder’s screenwriting manual Save the Cat to structure a short story, translating the 110 pages of a Save the Cat screenplay into 110 sentences. I’ve received a lot of good feedback on that exercise, including from people who’ve assigned it in their own creative writing classes, and I’ve also found that it’s a reasonable way to practice one version of the three-act story structure. Recently, I’ve been returning to that line of thinking, in part because I’m at the end of teaching a semester-long novel writing class in which many of my students are working in or toward a three-act structure, but often don’t quite know what that entails, having never before written anything of sufficient length to require quite so much planning or organizing.
I’m neither surprised nor dismayed by these struggles, of course, since I share them: novel structure must be one of the hardest things for a novelist to practice in advance. Other forms simply don’t usually require the same kind of large-scale support: Short stories can be very formal and can have complicated plots, but most of the time the movements are more abbreviated. The emotional or intellectual distance the character travels from the start to finish is usually shorter in a story than in a novel, and often the changes to the character’s life are relatively minor, the story’s ending instead relying less on total transformation than on the emergence of some emotional realization or epiphany.
Obviously there are plenty of counter examples. But for the most part, the kind of ending that works in a short story will feel unsatisfying in the novel just because the reader has to travel so much farther to reach it.
There are many successful ways to organize the material of a plot, but certainly one of the most common is the three-act structure, and it’s been my experience that most of my novel-writing students seem to be thinking toward that shape, as opposed to Freytag’s Pyramid or an episodic or serial structure or the more nonlinear plots described in something like Meander, Spiral, Explode.
All of which is to say: in order to prepare for novel writing it might benefit us to practice three-act thinking, and to do that we might again pursue a new way to write a novel-shaped story, attempting to put some of the most crucial moves of the three-act structure into play at a smaller scale.
Your exercise this month is to write a novel-shaped story in exactly forty sentences, moving your protagonist as far as possible from their starting position through a series of action-oriented, change-producing sentences. Here are the rules for this exercise:
1) Begin by deciding on the beginning and ending position of your protagonist, which should be significantly different from each other. What do I mean by “position”? This could be something externally measurable—a character begins destitute and ends wealthy, as in a rags to riches story—or it could be an internal state change: a character who is afraid to really live successfully embraces the world of other people. Most romances contain two matching extreme position changes, for the two primary people in the central couple: our two co-protagonists begin out of love (or in love with the wrong person) but by the end of the story, they’ve fallen in love with each other and have, usually, decided to be together in what feels to the audience like a permanent fashion. From unlucky in love to happily ever after, in two hours or three hundred pages.
If the distance between the two positions isn’t big enough, it may be hard to imagine enough steps between the two to complete this exercise. Similarly, in a novel or movie, if the two positions are too close together, the stakes will feel low. A fall from grace is a story. An empress who gets demoted to queen is… not.
2) In your first sentence, clearly state your character’s name, indicate their starting position, and, for efficiency’s sake, include an appositive phrase describing the character as succinctly and evocatively as possible. For example, consider this sentence from a recent New York Times article by Jennifer Schuessler:
Brody, the previously obscure 21-year-old heir to a margarine fortune, was returning from his honeymoon in Jamaica, and, as a grand romantic gesture, had impulsively bought out every seat on the plane so he and his bride could fly home alone.
This is a perfect beginning for our purposes: a character name, a little backstory, a very clear setting and situation, and a hint of some deep character need exposed by a tendency toward the grand gesture. The protagonist suggested by that sentence is rich, in love, and recently married: You might ask yourself, What would be the most dramatic place for a such a person to end up, at the end of our story?
3) In the second sentence—if you haven’t already done so in the first—introduce the inciting incident of your story. The inciting incident here must break the status quo of the first sentence: whatever the character’s life was like, it will now be different. The inciting incident must create a problem for the protagonist, something pressing that must be addressed by the action of the plot. The next sentence of the above mentioned NYT story, for instance, reads:
After landing, Brody, wearing bell-bottoms and large green sunglasses, announced to assembled reporters that he would be giving away his $25 million fortune to ordinary people to spread love and “cure the problems of the world.”
Brody, a rich young man, has decided to give all his money away—and now he’s out of the stasis of possessing his fortune and into the story of giving it away, or of going back on his word…
Once the inciting incident is on the page, Act I is underway.
In our scheme, it will last for the next eight sentences.
4) Each of the next eight sentences should contain one of two things: either an action or a choice that creates change, with as many of the actions/choices as possible being made by the protagonist. The change introduced in each sentence should ideally produce the need for the next sentence, propelling our plot along. (For our purposes here, if you’re not sure what counts as a change, look for anything that creates a discovery, a reversal, a complication, or a resolution.) Most of these early sentences should entail the protagonist reacting to the jolt of the inciting incident and its disruption of their life.
5) In the 11th sentence, your protagonist must make a choice that includes the moment where they stop reacting to the inciting incident and become active, driving their own story forward. This choice should clearly contain what the protagonist imagines as the solution to the problem posed by the inciting incident. This is what constitutes the break from Act I into Act II; for maximum drama the protagonist should explicitly choose to become the hero of their own story. This is the moment in The Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo announces that he’ll take the One Ring to Mordor: up to that point, Frodo is being dragged along by the will of Gandalf and Aragorn and by the threat of the ringwraiths. Once his choice is announced, he moves forward under his own direction, claiming his role as protagonist.
6) Now we’re into Act II, which will last until the 30th sentence of our story. Again, each sentence here should contain an action or a choice that creates changes in the story’s condition. Here the protagonist should be pursuing the goal of implementing the solution imagined in the 11th sentence, discovering the complications in the way of the goal, experiencing both successes and setbacks, and generally raising the stakes as the story progresses.
By the 29th sentence, your protagonist needs to believe they are very close to reaching their goal. Get them on the precipice of success, and then move on to the next step.
6) In the 30th sentence of your story, catastrophe strikes. Your protagonist experiences a major loss or a drastic setback, a defeat so ruinous that, in the 31st sentence, they consider giving up. This is the classic “dark night of the soul” scene, compressed into a single sentence: all is lost, or so it appears.
If you were writing a romantic comedy, the 30th sentence would contain the breakup of the central couple. If you were writing a superhero movie, sentence 30 would be the defeat of the heroes by the villain. In both cases, the 31st sentence would see the protagonists seemingly beaten.
This—and the sentence that follows—is the break into Act III.
7) In the 32nd sentence, your character once again chooses to be the hero of their story. They emerge from the dark night of the soul of the 31st sentence recommitted to their goal, whatever that is, and armed with whatever they learned during the catastrophe in sentence 30. A new plan emerges: in a rom-com, this is the grand gesture meant to get the couple back together; in our superhero drama, the heroes regroup, cement their alliance, and make a plan to defeat the temporarily victorious villain.
In The Lord of the Rings, the 32nd sentence is Frodo and Sam escaping Cirith Ungol to cross Mordor and climb Mount Doom, and in doing so accepting that there may be no return to the Shire. Now, at last, they are truly committed to the goal of sentence 11, no matter what the cost.
7) Eight sentences to go. Once again, your protagonist is acting and choosing, each sentence moving them closer to their goal. Again, complications and reversals appear; the protagonist overcomes them one by one, moving ever closer to the final reckoning of the 38th sentence.
8) In the 38th sentence, the want expressed in the 11th and the 32nd sentence should be resolved: here the protagonist reaches their goal or does not. One way or another, the story is coming to an end: the change created by the inciting incident set the protagonist on a path of their own choosing that at last terminates here. Romance is cemented, the villain is defeated, the ring falls and is destroyed—or not.
9) In the 39th sentence, we must clearly see the change in the protagonist’s position earned by their journey. An ordinary hobbit has become a hero. The superheroes defeat the villain, but more importantly they accept the responsibilities that come with their great powers. A character who was once unlucky in romance finds their one true partner and becomes a person worthy of that partner’s love. A margarine fortune heir with a heart of gold is, in the end, exposed as a fraud: “Brody’s checks began bouncing, and his life unraveled,” Schuessler writes. “Soon he disappeared from the headlines, and all but vanished from historical memory.”
Note that this final or near-final scene is often, in movies, an inverted “rhyme” of the opening one. It might be fruitful here to consider how you might do something similar in prose: what is the opposite of the scene contained in your first sentence?
10) The 40th sentence is your denouement: this is the next status quo for your protagonist, the new stasis that emerges after this particularly story has come to a close. This final status quo can be happy or tragic, it can be morally ambiguous or open-ended. But however your story ends, it’s all of the choice-laded, action-driven sentences that came before that have the reader to this satisfying final moment, in which life is as different for your protagonist as it can be.
10a) Something worth noting here: if a character reaches the 39th and 40th sentence and there chooses to return to the position of sentence 1, then their story is almost certainly a terrible tragedy. A character who’s undergone a dramatic journey only to end up emotionally back where they began usually does so with the knowledge that things could’ve been different: for instance, a character who is to afraid to really live who goes out into the world and then, in the end, chooses their isolation again does so with the knowledge that a different life was possible. If the ending position looks a lot like the starting one, it is almost certainly in actuality worse, because the character is choosing it of their own volition despite knowing an alternative exists.
It is probably obvious to you by now that the forty sentences in this exercise are really stand-ins for forty scenes, with each one functioning the way successful scenes do. It seems possible to me that, if you’ve done everything above well, you could take your story’s forty action-driven, change-containing sentences, rewrite them as forty scenes in sequence, and produce a passable novel. That novel would, thanks to the way you’ve imagined it in story form, already be in a three-act structure, with its plot points in more or less the right place. In this way, your novel-shaped story may be a de facto outline for a novel, waiting to be written…
Good luck! See you next month!
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Matt Bell’s novel Appleseed was published by HarperCollins in July 2021. His craft book Refuse to Be Done, a guide to novel writing, rewriting, & revision, is out now from Soho Press. He’s also the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.