Good morning and welcome to Crafting Your Career. I used to think keeping track of my plot ideas was like trying on bathing suits. I would just have to keep going until I found something that worked. I’ve tried outlining, scene charts, character charts, goal-motivation-conflict charts, you name it. I finally came up with a combination of things that helps me keep my story focused (most of the time!), and Harlequin Intrigue author Tracy Montoya had a hand in it.
Several years ago I took an online plotting class from Tracy, and it changed the way I approach plotting. I could go on and on about this, but I’m going to let Tracy do the talking here! I hope you all find mapping as helpful as I do.
Adrienne: When I took your Plotting the Romantic Suspense online class a few years ago, you talked about how plots are made up of hills and valleys. Would you please give us a brief explanation of what that means?
Tracy: Sure! The hills are those times when the tension is at its highest—the mini-crises in every scene, as well as the pinches and turning points in the overall story arc, where something exciting is happening that has the reader on the edge of her seat.
The valleys are the points just after those moments of tension—where we just got through a crisis and now have to take a breather, feed the relationship between the hero and heroine, and transition into the next tension point of your story.
You can’t have a novel be one big hill, because instead of having your reader experience a gamut of emotions, she’d just be a nervous train wreck all throughout. Even a story like The Fugitive (the Harrison Ford film), which FELT like it was one big hill when I was sitting in the theater, had calmer “valley” moments.
Adrienne: I have always used three-act structure when plotting, but the way you break down the individual acts resonated with me. Would you tell us about the “map”?
Tracy: My favorite way to give an overview of the map is to talk about it in the context of a favorite film that most people know. So be warned—if you haven’t seen the Sandra Bullock romantic comedy While You Were Sleeping, I’m so totally going to spoil it for you right now….
CAVEAT: This map is NOT set in stone. People get all confused when I first present it, because they think it’s some sort of weirdly rigid formula that I’m telling them to follow to the letter. It’s not—it’s intended to be a loose guideline. You’ll notice I leave space for three scenes per chapter. You do not need three scenes in every chapter! (Didn’t Stephenie Meyer have several chapters made up of a title and a blank page in New Moon, after all?)
All of the parts can move around, too. You don’t necessarily need the Inciting Incident in the third scene of chapter one, and Chris Vogler himself says the hero’s journey points can show up out of order!
So, again, loose guideline. And if you’re writing literary fiction instead of genre fiction, all bets are off.
Anyway, back to While You Were Sleeping (which I will from now on refer to as WYWS). Our setup is that our heroine, Lucy Moderatz is a token booth operator for Chicago’s El train. Her mother died when she was young, and her father died a year before the story opens. She’s young, lost, and very lonely, living alone in a small apartment with her cat. She has a crush on a rich-looking, handsome guy (Peter) who buys a token from her every morning. They’ve never spoken, but she hopes “someday I’ll find a way to introduce myself.”
Chapters 1-4(-ish) make up Act 1, where we establish the story, the conflict between the hero and heroine, and the conflict between the hero, the heroine, and the villain.
Scene A: The “Oh, no!” moment: We need to begin our story with a bang—with something that pulls the reader in right away. Yet Christopher Vogler describes how in the mythic structure, we have a scene in the Ordinary World, which shows the protagonist’s status quo so we can more fully feel the contrast between it and the special story world.
So how do you show the protagonist’s Ordinary World without boring the reader to death? Well, films can cheat, because they can just dazzle us with pretty pictures or super-quick scenes in the Ordinary World. Writers do not have this advantage, so we have to begin with a bang. That would be the “Oh, no!” scene.
An “Oh, no!” scene is one where the reader gets an inkling (or a figurative sledgehammer) that something is about to go very, very wrong for our protagonist. Or it could be the moment where things just start to fall apart in the Ordinary World.
WYWS “Oh, no!” moment: Peter falls onto the train tracks and loses consciousness. Lucy has to rescue him before an oncoming train squashes him.
Scene C (Inciting Incident): The Inciting Incident generally takes place by the time you finish chapter one. (You may even start with it and forget all about doing an “oh, no” scene!) This is the event that propels your protagonist into the main plot. This incident sets the plot in motion, starting the eventual pull of the main character out of her Ordinary World. In other words, if it weren’t for the Inciting Incident, the whole story wouldn’t happen.
In a romantic suspense, for example, the Inciting Incident is generally when something pulls the hero and/or heroine fully into the effort to bring the villain to justice.
WYWS Inciting Incident: Nurse at the hospital overhears Lucy mumble something about how she “was going to marry him” and mistakes Lucy for Peter’s fiancée. The nurse introduces Lucy to Peter’s family as his fiancée, and because Peter is in a coma, the family buys it!
Scene A (Refusal of the Call to Adventure): This is the part that Vogler calls the “Refusal of the Call to Adventure.” Your protagonist is about to leave his or her Ordinary World. Now, most of us like our Ordinary World. It’s cozy and predictable. We have enough to eat, we have a job that pays the bills, and we have nice family and friends. Do we want to leave it? Generally, no.
Neither will your protagonist. So she’s going to put up some resistance until something happens to change her mind.
WYWS Refusal of the Call to Adventure: Lucy refuses this “Call to Adventure” all the way up to the first turning point, trying desperately to tell the nurse and Peter’s family the truth. The family won’t let her get a word in edgewise, and the nurse isn’t much help when she learns the truth. Plus, the warmth and love in this family quickly becomes very seductive to lonely Lucy.
Scene B (Still refusing)
Scene C (Still refusing)
Scene A (Still refusing)
Scene B (Still refusing)
Scene C (First Turning Point): Now that we’ve propelled the hero and heroine into the story, we need to move toward the first turning point. Screenwriter Syd Field defines a Plot Point (aka a Turning Point) as “any incident, episode or event that hooks into the action and spins it around into another direction; in this case, either Act II or Act III.”
In other words, these are the points where EVERYTHING CHANGES. There’s just no way the protagonist can stay in her Ordinary World now. She has to move forward and face the conflict. Think Dorothy’s house landing in Oz.
WYWS Turning Point #1: Peter’s family finally stops fussing over Lucy to ask her how she met Peter. This is her chance to clear everything up, but instead, she tells a lie of omission—saying that they met on the El train, but not telling them that she’s really not Peter’s fiancée. Now it’s going to be very difficult to get out of this situation and her lies without upsetting someone.
Scene C (The First Test): The First Test is the first major disaster—in many stories, this is the first major confrontation with the villain in the Special World. You’ll likely have smaller disasters leading up to this point, but this one will be massive, and it will show how Everything Has Changed.
WYWS First Test: Peter’s godfather Saul overhears Lucy talking to Peter (she thinks she’s alone), and Lucy unwittingly ends up revealing the truth to Saul. Later, at a family Christmas party, Saul confronts her indirectly, telling her he’d never allow anyone to hurt the family. Lucy sincerely responds that she wouldn’t let anyone hurt them either, and unbeknownst to her, she passes Saul’s test. Saul keeps quiet about what he knows.
Chapters 5-12(-ish) make up the middle of the book, or Act 2, where much of the action and reaction takes place. Christopher Vogler calls the middle the period of “Tests, Allies, and Enemies.” Basically, it’s where your hero and heroine will be tested as they try to reach their goals. In a romantic suspense, it’s not going to be easy for t he hero and heroine to find and capture the villain. And it’s also not going to be easy for the hero and heroine to overcome their inner demons and allow themselves to become romantically involved. So it’ll be a dance of back and forth for much of the middle—they will get a promising lead or plan to capture the villain, only to have it backfire and drive them back to square one. They will become closer emotionally, only to drive themselves apart due to their internal conflicts.
Scene A (Aftermath of the Disaster and Introduction to New World): Here, we’re going to show the outcome of that First Test, as well as its aftermath. This brings us fully into the hero and heroine’s New World. This is a valley point, and an important one! (Think the Munchkins singing to Dorothy in Oz, Glinda introducing her to her quest, etc.)
WYWS Aftermath/Introduction: Lucy quickly grows close to Saul and the family. She provides a great deal of comfort to them while their son is in a coma, and they are the large, warm family she never had and has always wanted.
Scene C (Pinch #1): Between the Aftermath scene and now, we’re working our way quickly to Pinch #1. (This can, of course, occur anywhere you want.) Now that your characters have survived the First Test, you need to throw something new and BIG at them.
Keep in mind, they WILL have other obstacles to get past on the way to Pinch #1 (and between Pinch #1 and Pinch #2, and between Pinch #2 and the end …), but Pinch #1 should be pretty significant in comparison, a new and horrible challenge for them to overcome. Carolyn Greene calls it “a tightening of the screws.” Other authors call this the point where you raise the stakes. Whatever you call it, just ask yourself how you could have the villain pull the rug out from under your hero and heroine, and do it.
WYWS Pinch #1: Peter’s brother Jack arrives. He’s immediately suspicious of Lucy, because he’s never heard Peter mention her. He starts checking her out and grilling her with questions about Peter. Further adding to this pinch is that Peter has a real fiancée, and we see scenes that show Ashley is heading back to town after some time away.
Scene A Up until the Midpoint, the tests continue—mainly in the form of Jack humorously grilling Lucy and Lucy escaping by the seat of her pants.
Scene B (Romantic Pinch): I stick this in here to remind me that I need to throw in a big complication in the romance and not neglect it when dealing with the main conflict (which, for me, is usually a classic suspense villain). Some people with whom I’ve shared this map do two maps—a complete one for the main conflict, and another whole map for the romantic conflict. I prefer to keep both on the same map, as a reminder to keep the romance and the suspense (or other main conflict) intertwined. Use whatever works for you.
WYWS Romantic Pinch: Lucy and Jack start developing feelings for each other—and she’s supposed to be Peter’s fiancée! Things get worse when the family catches them under the mistletoe and pushes Jack to kiss Lucy.
Scene B (Approach to Inmost Cave): According to Vogler, this is the point where the hero (and/or heroine) is going to regroup. S/he’s adjusted to the New World—now s/he has to get to the very heart of it to achieve his/her goal. The “Approach to the Inmost Cave” is where s/he prepares for the “central ordeal of the adventure.”
This is not necessarily the FINAL showdown with the villain, but it will be a significant confrontation. The Approach is the place for your protagonists to take stock of the situation, to plan, and to try to gain control of this confrontation with the villain
This phase really does not last only a scene—it can take place over several scenes. I put it in Chapter 8 as a reminder to start setting the stage for a big confrontation.
WYWS Approach: Lucy gets a hot dog with her boss and tells him about the whole situation, including her growing feelings for Jack. Her boss tells her to tell the truth.
Scene C (Midpoint/Supreme Ordeal): OK, now we’re halfway through the story. Let’s take stock of what should have happened in your story by now. The hero and heroine should have had some nice romantic tension going on. They should have discovered a few new clues as to how to deal with the main story conflict (in a romantic suspense, that would be bringing the villain to justice.) They should have perhaps even come close to overcoming the main conflict and achieving their overarching goal at one point.
The Midpoint is where you’ll want to have them confront the villain or opposing force in a MAJOR, major way. They may be somewhat victorious at this point, or they may experience a huge setback. Or, perhaps, they’ll experience a little bit of both.
WYWS Midpoint: Peter wakes up! Lucy is forced into confronting her lie in front of Peter and the whole family.
Scene D (Romantic Supreme Ordeal): Another aspect of the midpoint is going to be a ratcheting up of romantic tension—and, perhaps, your first love scene between the hero and heroine. This is what I call the “Romantic Supreme Ordeal.” Here, the hero and heroine have to confront their feelings for each other because they’ve just gotten too big to keep denying. The conflicts that have been keeping them apart are still there, but they do manage to overcome them enough to get intimate—in whatever form that might take in your book.
It might be a conversation, a kiss, or an all-out love scene. But they need to have a moment somewhere in Act Two where they try to grasp at happiness together. Of course, their conflicts are still going to keep them apart, because we have to keep testing their love throughout the rest of Act Two.
WYWS Romantic Ordeal: (This actually happens before the Midpoint above in the film.) Jack and Lucy have a moment where the tension between them gets so great, they almost kiss. They end up fighting instead when Jack grumpily tells Lucy she’s “not Peter’s type.” Lucy almost forces things to a point, asking Jack whose type she is, but then both shy away from the conversation they want to have.
Scene A (Rosy Glow): This is the point where the hero and heroine celebrate (probably “quietly reflect,” actually) any victories they’ve had in the Supreme Ordeal and regroup/plan for the final Confrontation. They’ll also be celebrating their newfound intimacy
WYWS Rosy Glow: The family quickly comes to the conclusion that Peter has selective amnesia, and surprisingly, a doctor concurs. Lucy is safe in her lie for now.
Scene B (Slide Downhill): THEN everything starts to go to pieces. The hero and heroine will start getting signs that all is not well. The villain is ramping up his nefariousness again. And their conflict is still there, so they can’t just be in love—there are still complications standing in the way of their being truly intimate.
WYWS Slide: Lucy she feels too conflicted about Jack and guilty about the family to feel too rosy. She asks Saul to tell Peter and her family the truth.
Scene C (Pinch #2): Well, we’ve placed the signs that everything is starting to go to pieces, so now it needs to go to pieces. About now, we need another20Pinch, another new and BIG tightening of the screws/raising of the stakes.
WYWS Pinch #2: Saul talks to Peter, but instead of telling him the truth, he tells Peter he’s a putz and should let himself fall in love with sweet, wonderful Lucy and marry her instead of continuing his shallow lifestyle. Peter listens thoughtfully. And Lucy is still stuck in her lie!
Scene C (Second Turning Point): So we get through that second Pinch, and then we should close Act Two—our series of tests, allies, and enemies—with a second Turning Point. Remember, a Turning Point is where EVERYTHING CHANGES. This huge, enormous, significant change, where everything the hero and heroine know is spun into the opposite direction, sets the stage for the final confrontation with the villain.
WYWS Second Turning Point: Peter asks Lucy to marry him. Lucy accepts.
Chapters 13-15(-ish) make up Act 3, the resolution of the story—the suspense and the relationship between the H&H.
Scene A (Dark Moment/Crisis): The second turning point so shook up the hero and heroine, that it appears that all is lost. They have to come up with a new plan, but right now, they just feel hopeless. The villain is winning, or the main conflict seems insurmountable, and life sucks.
WYWS Dark Moment: Jack gives Lucy a perfect wedding gift—a snow globe of Florence, symbolizing her dream to travel, which she’d told him about. She’s in love, but she knows if she tells the truth now, she’ll lose him and his wonderful family.
Scene B (The Road Back/New Plan): Vogler talks about The Road Back as the place where the energy of your story revs up again. The protagonists had a quiet moment of feeling hopeless there, and now it’s time to start the action up again. Things have been turned on their heads, so your hero and heroine need a new plan.
WYWS Road Back: Lucy shows up at the wedding and resolutely marches down the aisle toward, though she’s clearly unhappy.
Scene C (Pinch #3): If only the hero and heroine’s new plan went off without a hitch. Of course, it won’t, because what fun would that be? Something is going to arise, and quickly, to make things much more complicated.
WYWS Pinch #3: Peter’s real fiancée arrives in town, ready to confront Peter and Lucy. Lucy’s about to marry Peter, but she loves Jack, who looks on sadly.
Scene A (Confrontation): This is the final confrontation between your hero and heroine and the villain or main conflict. And it should be a good one—we should think that the villain has the upper hand or the hero and heroine won’t be able to overcome their main obstacle at first.
WYWS Confrontation: At the start of the ceremony, Lucy stops everything, feeling too horrible to let the wedding continue. She resolves to deal with her lie once and for all.
Scene C (Climax/Death-and-Rebirth Ordeal/Sacrifice): And now, here’s where we pull out all the stops and let our hero and heroine vanquish that pesky villain or the main conflict. Vogler calls this a “death-and-rebirth” ordeal because often things get so hopeless before evil is vanquished that the hero even dies or appears to die. It’s also the death of their old selves—they’ve grown, and often it’s that very growth that allows them to overcome evil.
WYWS Climax Etc.: Lucy confesses to the family that she’s in love with Jack and that she lied about being Peter’s fiancée. (So her lie and her fictitious identity as Peter’s fiancée dies. Cool, eh?) She tells them she didn’t want to tell them the truth because she fell in love with the family, too, and was just happy to be part of a loving family for a little while. (Ashley, Peter’s real fiancée, shows up, cutting off the conversation and any immediate hope Lucy has of reconciling with them all. She leaves, and has sacrificed her happiness with the family for the truth.)
Scene B (Return with Elixir): This is the moment of celebration of the victory. The hero and heroine have achieved their goals, overcome their conflicts, vanquished the villain, and will now have declared their love to each other. This is your happy ending. And the elixir they return with is their love and the growth they’ve achieved.
WYWS Return: We next see Lucy on her last day at the El train. She’s quitting to start a better future. Jack shows up with an engagement ring—and his family!
Scene C (Grace Note): Since the final scene is usually where the villain is defeated or main conflict is overcome, it’s nice to do a FINAL final scene that shows the hero and heroine in their new Ordinary World—together and happy in their newfound growth.
WYWS Grace Note: We see Lucy and Jack getting married, and she tells us they’re going to Florence on their honeymoon.
Adrienne: How did you come up with this map?
Tracy: It’s a mishmash of tips I picked up from other sources, and I have to give massive amounts of credit to Silhouette author Carolyn Greene, a.k.a. The Plot Doctor, whose Prescription for Plotting notebook (www.plotdoctor.com) was the first thing that helped me organize the jumble of story and scene ideas in my head into some semblance of coherence (at least on my planet).
And of course there’s a heavy dose of Christopher Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey, Syd Fields’ three-act structure, and a dash of Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer in there. All wrapped up in my own special brand of plotting madness.
Adrienne: Are you still teaching your online class? If not, how can our readers learn your mapping system?
Tracy: I’m teaching parts of it at the Lowcountry Romance Writers Jumpstart Master Class on the beach this fall. Unfortunately, I skipped teaching it for the RWA Kiss of Death chapter this year, because we were planning a vertical cross-country move, and I knew if I scheduled a class, I would end up teaching while packing moving boxes! I’ll try to get into KOD’s 2010 schedule—readers can stay tuned to my website, www.tracymontoya.com, for news of upcoming classes.
Thank you to Tracy for sharing her mapping system and for being here to answer questions.
To the pantsers and plotters out there, let us know how you tackle story structure.
Be sure to join us on Wednesday when Jeanne Stein and Mario Acevedo will show us how the same scene looks when written from the male and female POV.
Bio: Harlequin Intrigue author Tracy Montoya used to crack herself up by calling herself an award-losing author, but then she had to go and win a few. Her books have won the Daphne du Maurier award, the Beacon Award, and the Golden Quill award for romantic suspense. A member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Society of Environmental Journalists, Tracy has written for a variety of publications, including Hope, Body + Soul (a Martha Stewart publication), Utne Reader, YES!, Audubon, and the National Green Pages. Prior to launching her journalism career, she taught in an under resourced school in Louisiana through the AmeriCorps Teach for America program.
Tracy holds a Master’s degree in English literature from Boston College and a B.A. in the same from St. Mary’s University. Her last book was 2008’s I’ll Be Watching You, and she’s currently in limbo, waiting for news. Visit her website at http://www.tracymontoya.com/.
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