Story Excerpts

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Math of Writing

I wanted to pass on a writing tip that is really helping me with my plot structures. It's simply this:

0%        25%        50%        75%        100%

Act I     Act II                     Act III

Hey, I'm not a fan of math either.  But whoever came up with this is brilliant.  Thinking in percentages and "acts" will tighten up those sagging middles, fill up plot holes and help sculpt your story.  Even pansters might benefit from this formula when editing.

You open the story, hopefully with compelling conflict.  Chapters fly by, and the reader is getting a sense of what the story is about. Think of it as Act 1. At the 25% mark, introduce the first plot point.  It should change the character's world, force them to make decisions/plans, and deepen the conflict.  This is a great place for a twist as Act II begins.

Act II will span from the 25% mark to the 75% mark, and is arguably the hardest part of the book to get right plotwise.  Basically, you want to show the protag's progress and complicate his/her situation.  At 50%, you're obviously halfway through.  That would be the place to thow in the monkey wrench, or second plot point.  Keep the reader hooked and guessing, but don't have the protag come home to find the dog wearing a tutu, sitting at the table and drinking tea with the cat.  While at 25%, you can take the story in just about any direction, at 50%, the twist should make sense to the story and increase the stakes.  This is the characters' point of no return.  Your's too.  :-)

 Artist “bnielsen”

75% ushers in Act III, and your third plot point or major set back. It looks like the antag is winning, and the protag's plight seems beyond hope -- or it should.  You want your reader worried that there is no way the book can end well (leaving room for hope, of course.)  The plot and subplots should be coming to a head, and if you're really crafty, the reader is starting to understand how those subplots fit into the main plot.  Then you have the scenes its all been leading up to -- the protag overcomes, etc., and the happy ending. 100% should leave everything tied up in a neat little bow with no loose threads.  Voila.  Bowing.  Roses are flying.  And the reader should be able to live the rest of their lives without reading book two.  Yes, I did just go there.

I hope I didn't confuse you.  Okay, I did.  Ignore me and try the formula anyway.  It's a great place to start, and it's changing the way I write and edit.

A big thank you to Loree from Loree Huebner ~ Between you, me and the gatepost, and Faye from labor not in vain for thinking of me while passing on the "I've Been Tagged" Questionnaire!  If you aren't following Loree and Faye's blogs yet, allow me to recommend them. Loree writes a terrific historical-themed blog featuring the Civil War time period, and I am so excited about her new contract with Seymour Agency!  Faye reviews the latest CBA releases and writes helpful and sincere book reviews.

I'm not going to participate in the questionnaire this time (forgive me), but if you would like to, I'm passing this questionnaire on to you.  You can find Loree's questions and Faye's questions in the links I provided above. :-)


Elizabeth Young said...

I found this post tremendously helpful and encouraging this morning Gwendolyn, and have decided that you are my new go to person as far as advice regarding my WIP is concerned! This is a tremendous tutorial. I am basically following this formula but because my novel is about my paternal Grandmother and they had such gigantic families back them (my Great-great Grandfather has 18 children!) I'm a little lost on the sub plots. Any advice you can give me would be greatly appreciated, and thank you again, you are a wonderful teacher.

Michelle Griep said...

I hate math, but you nailed these numbers right on, Gwen!

Gwendolyn Gage said...

Hi Elizabeth, I'm so glad you found this helpful. I hit the post button last night wondering if I was just giving everyone a good laugh or making them cringe, lol! I'm still learning myself, and I read a lot of writing tutorials.

Subplots can really enrich the story, but don't go overboard. Try to limit yourself to two or three. They don't always have to tie into main plot, but its better when they do. I might write a post on subplots. :-)

Gwendolyn Gage said...

Hi Michelle! Yeah, booo math. But when it helps tighten your writing... :-) I can't take credit for this helpful tip, and I don't know who came up with it. Just wanted to pass it on.

Loree Huebner said...

Gwen, I loved this post. Great tips here. I never looked at a plot like this before. You can see the structure. I'll always keep it in mind from now on. Such an easy, useful tool.

Thanks for the sweet mention, and don't worry about not playing along.

Gwendolyn Gage said...

Hi Loree! You're welcome, and I'm very happy to share this tool with you. It's so helpful to have the basic structure in mind while you're working on that first draft, or deep in second draft edits. :-)

Jessica R. Patch said...

Oy! Math. I hate it. Trying to figure out how many pages make up each percent would flip my mind! LOL I know it needs three acts and the majority in the middle. I keep up with about how many pages that will be because I know I'm working towards 100K.

I just hate math. Great post, though!

Gwendolyn Gage said...

Hi Jessica, if you don't want to bother with math, you could print out your manuscript, and seperate it into four equally-sized stacks. A new aspect of the plot should be revealed every time a stack ends and another begins.

But percentages are really easy. Just pick up a calculator and divide your total work count by the percentage. 25% of 100,000 would be 25,000, 50% of 100,000 would be 50,000 and so on. :-)

Gabrielle Meyer said...

I just found your blog via Laura Frantz and found this post to be timely! I am reading "Plot & Structure" by James Scott Bell and I am currently reading his take on the three act formula and everything you wrote fits right in with what I am learning. Thanks!

I look forward to following your blog.

Gwendolyn Gage said...

Hi Gabrielle, welcome to my humble blog. :-) Thanks for letting me know that this post was timely and helpful to you -- it's such an encouragement. Bless you!

Lauren S. said...

Thank you for this post! The part about the 75% mark really hit home today. Lots of good stuff to think about...

Gwendolyn Gage said...

You're very welcome, Lauren! Yeah, the 75% mark is important. You don't want to be to early or late with your set back. Blessings upon you and your writing. :-)