Thursday, 5 July 2012

MASTERCLASS - Wrestling with Plot: Sherryl Clark

SCBWI's Roving Reporter, Lynda Calder attended Sherryl Clark's brilliant session on plotting. Here are some of the highlights from her double-session masterclass:
Sherryl Clark is a successful Australian author. She's also been teaching professional writing at TAFE for 16 years.

Her writing coaching agency has a new e-guide, "The Tough Guide to Why You Are Not Published Yet". And another will come on goal-setting soon.

Why is it important? Plotting is just what goes on top of the structure. The structure is a house's frame. The plot is the cladding. You cannot plot effectively without understanding good structure. And a simple structure could have a myriad of plots put over the top. A lot of books are about structure for screen plays. BUT the screen writers are right. Structure helps with pacing, sagging middles and failed endings.

Structure can come into play in revisions if you are the sort of writer who just writes and see what comes out.

Narrative drive: What pushes the story through to the conclusion - from the main character and what they most want or need? It drives the story. Otherwise, the story goes nowhere. It may be something that changes. e.g. "The Firm" - Tom Cruises’ character aim was to be a fantastic lawyer, have a brilliant life and make lots of money. At the first turning point, the firm is a front for the mafia. Now the drive becomes staying alive.

Having a break and still talking about plot!
Turning Point: The story goes in a different direction and is a surprise for the reader. It sends the story in a more exciting direction.

Epiphany: The moment where the characters realises something that leads to the end of the story. Can also be the climax.

Journey: What the character goes on - externally and internally. External affects the internal to change the main character and make them grow.

Raising the Stakes: Continually raise the stakes and increase the tension. If ever stuck, think the worst that could happen and make it happen to your character.  Otherwise, there is no story.

Wrestling with Plot...

Structure is a tool, not a formula. You don't necessarily need it for the first draft. If you use it enough, it becomes second nature.

Rule of 3: A strong fairy-tale element (3 little pigs, 3 little bears). Three is enough. Four is too many. Two is not enough.
Each of the three things is an obstacle to raise the tension UP - always up. (Anything up to 5000 words works).
Invisible but holding up the story.

If you pick 10 things, then you can choose three from those that help make the story stronger. The first thing that comes into your head is not usually the best. Step back, brainstorm.

"Screenwriting" by Syd Field pp 26-27, 128-129
1.       Inciting incident (no explaining, no character sketches) - starts the story in motion
Propels the main character out of their normal world, into action. In a picture book - by the third double page spread. The art of writing is getting all the who, where, when etc. into the beginning. You have to be REALLY tight.
2.       Then three complications - brainstorm EVERY possibility. You can throw away the horrible things. But don't go for the things that everyone has used. If too predictable and ordinary, the ending becomes predictable.
3.       Climax - the moment just before the climax is the point where things could not possibly get any worse. If you can't work out how to solve it, that is a good thing. It may take some time to solve. If the answer is a surprise to you, it will be to the reader, as well.

(Three Acts - goes back to Aristotle.) Screen plays of 120 minutes are divided into 3 Acts - 30 minutes, 60 minutes, and 30 minutes. With turning points in-between. The climax sits about 1/3 into the last Act. Mid-Act climax in the middle of Act 2. Inciting incident happens in Act 1 and the character can never go back.

First turning point is the first BIG surprise for the audience. And this launches us into Act 2.
The second turning point makes it all happen again.
E.g. "Million Dollar baby" - 1st turning point is Clint Eastwood becoming trainer.
Act 2 is about her drive to be the best (filled with complications).
2nd turning point is her fatal injury and being on life support.
Act 3 is the pay-off with their relationship.

Turning points shoot the story into new playgrounds.
Christopher Vogler's Hero's Journey (slightly modified)
Every major character in your story needs to go on this journey. George Lucas studied with George Campbell and used this structure. Vogler took this structure from "Star Wars". "The Writer's Journey" by Christopher Vogler is highly recommended. Diagram pages
ACT 1 ("Star Wars" example)
1.       Ordinary world - the main character starts in their own world
2.       Call to adventure - the inciting incident, obligation, duty, having to rescue someone
3.       Refusal of the call - because they like being in their world
4.       Second call
5.       Meeting with the mentor - doesn't have to be a human
6.       Crossing the threshold - into the other world (first turning point) and they cannot go back because of the thing they need or want to do
7.       Test, allies, enemies, obstacles - gain skills, knowledge (esp. about themselves), gain courage etc.
Things are getting worse
8.       Approach to the inmost cave - the moment at which things can't possibly get any worse (just before the climax) - this is where the character gets closest to giving up
9.       Supreme ordeal - the climax and final battle
10.   Reward - villain defeated
11.   The road back - recrossing the threshold back to the ordinary world.
12.   Resurrection or Final Test - The hero has to prove they have learned what they set out to learn - esp. internally. (The climax is past BUT something extra happens.)
13.   Return with elixir - home is never the same because the hero has changed.
Using this structure and tacking the plot onto it can help identify sagging parts and gaps in the plot.

 The picture book grid can be matched to the Hero's Circular Journey.

The climax must bring about absolute and irreversible change. The difference between real life and fiction is that in real life people may not really change. We want to think people can change (maybe this is why people read fiction).

The Structure of Scene

From "Story" by Robert McKee:
Positive and Negative: Every scene must change - either from positive to negative or vice versa. If it doesn't the scene doesn't move the story forward and it should go.

Scenes in a sequence should also do the same: positive -->  minus --> positive --> minus --> positive --> minus
"Seven" dealing with the seven deadly sins has examples of this.

A character must be put in a vice, be squeezed until they are forced to do something (maybe with a few small victories along the way) but on the whole their choices and actions make things increasingly worse.

Ask yourself - what is the purpose of this scene? To advance the scene, raising the stakes, keep the tension up? If it is only character building, then it is not worth it. If you have walk-on characters they MUST also have a purpose and a reason for it.
But they can be an opportunity to bring in  new, long-term character with their own journey.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Thanks for adding in the extra references I suggested above (now deleted). The whole conference was so useful and it was great to meet up with everyone again, including the Kiwi contingent!