From three acts to trilogies: The fall of “tight, gapless” writing

John August. (Mai Le)

John August. (Mai Le)

Over at Grantland, Kevin Lincoln makes a deft observation about the current (sorry) state of Hollywood’s output, which has gone from “tight, gapless screenwriting” to scripts focused on world-building, sequels, expansion, rebooting—in other words, franchising.

Lincoln quotes screenwriter John August:

Most screenwriters are essentially world-builders, and the nature of screenwriting is to create a universe in which these characters live, so that’s really exciting for screenwriters … it’s this weird blend of wanting to create the best two-hour movie you possibly can and having to sort of function as a TV showrunner, charting out the whole series, even though as a screenwriter, you’re only going to get paid for that one movie.

I have some interest in how Hollywood screenplays are crafted. (Truth be told, I’m more interested in how three-act scripts are structured, Hollywood or otherwise.) What concerns me with Lincoln’s article—beyond the ouroboros death-spiral that is the quality of Hollywood filmmaking today—is how this world-building dynamic is present in fiction too, particularly ebooks, a universe I’ve been wading into over the past twelve months.

If you search Amazon for independently-published novels labeled “contemporary” or “literary fiction,” you’ll discover your options are limited. (Or, if you’re like me, you might say “the field is wide open.”) Genre fiction is a another story. Science fiction, mystery, fantasy, dystopian YA, romance (and so on) are well-represented in the world of independently-published ebooks. Over-represented, maybe.

Some see that as a knock on the quality of independent electronic-only publishing, but the same situation is found across the publishing spectrum. Hardbound, paperback, big name New York publishers, small press publishers, even vanity presses—genre outnumbers the contemporary/literary world by an order of magnitude. (At least in the realm of books. By my reckoning, literary magazines outnumber genre magazines by two orders of magnitude.)

Someday I’ll write up my thoughts on genre fiction, but for now I’ll say that I don’t see the above situation as a problem in particular. I would like to see contemporary and literary fiction better-represented in the world of independent publishing, but I’m just one voice in a sea of many.

Three acts? Or three (or more) books?

My problem is where August’s observation about screenwriting intersects with independent publishing. Having spent a bit of time searching blogs and so forth for tips on breaking into the world of ebooks, I’ve again and again seen two connected strategies emphasized: world-building and sequels.

Group photo.

Group photo.

What’s that mean? Build a world, a big world, and explore it over the course of several books. This strategy has been the cornerstone of comic books (“the Marvel Universe“) and genre fiction (“A Lt. Detective Malone Mystery”) for decades now. Hollywood is finally waking up to the possibilities. And so are ebooks.

The ebook marketing wonkthink goes something like this: Write a catchy, addictive first novel that introduces your main character, builds the world, and stocks it with complementary secondary characters to be developed later. Give the first ebook away for free. Then write sequels that continue the story and develop your pantheon. Progressively increase the price of your ebooks as the series grows. When you’ve published the last ebook in the series—or reached a natural breathing point—package them together as a “boxed set” (there’s no box, just bits) and price it higher still.

Done right, the individual ebooks may be priced from free to, say, $4.99. The boxed sets can be sold as high as $19.99—the cover price of a physical book in a physical bookstore. With Amazon’s KDP Select, the author pockets 70% of that $20 purchase price. Not bad.

That’s the theory, but are sequels and world-building producing great reads? I’m not a connoisseur of modern genre fiction so I can’t say. I’m curious what hardcore genre fans think. Personally, I recall in my teenage years picking up Book One of various science fiction series only to discover its entire purpose was to introduce characters and describe the world’s physics and technology—in other words, sell me on buying the rest of the series. No thanks.

I know this: I haven’t gone to a movie theater in years simply because I can’t stomach what Hollywood is shoveling out the door these days. (This comes from a guy who grew up collecting Avengers comics and praying for a movie version.) They’ve rebooted Spiderman three times. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Yeah, got it.

Does it work?

Looking over Amazon’s Kindle Top 100 (paid ebooks, not free) and mentally discarding editions released by major publishers (and therefore available in paper form), I do see a number of independent ebooks that are part of a series. However, they’re all the first volume in the series (save for one boxed set selling for $0.99). I estimate two possibilities, and they’re not exclusive:

  1. The authors are selling the first book but failing to maintain readership throughout the series.
  2. The authors are big enough names they can sell the first volume rather than give it away for free.

In other words, I can’t tell from this limited data set what to make of this situation. I will say it’s tough as hell to crack the Kindle Top 100, so kudos to the authors. Also, this exercise of mine is rife with problems, so don’t let it stand as the final word on anything.

Note that I’m not terribly interested in the profitability of this world-building strategy. I’m more curious how other writers attract—and keep—the attention of readers. Do you really have to write a multi-volume genre series to succeed? I hope not.

I love the idea of tight, gapless screenwriting. I love even more the idea of tight, gapless fiction. For whatever it’s worth, that’s what I’m trying to do here.

Writing better fiction with Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure: The treatment

Syd Field

Syd Field

(See my “Continuing Series” page for a listing of all posts about using Syd Field’s paradigm to write fiction.)

Last post I explained Syd Field’s “paradigm” and how it applied to writing a three-act screenplay. I also explained that I’ve modified his paradigm for writing fiction (short stories and novels). What I’m about to explain is the first step in that process. It’s to write a treatment for your next story or book.

I’m not talking about a Hollywood treatment. In Hollywood, a treatment is a specific document produced near the beginning of the creative process. Different sources give different definitions, even wildly different page counts, for a treatment. For Syd Field’s purposes, a treatment is a brief description of the screenplay—part sales pitch, part outline, part proof-of-concept—three to five pages long, narrated in present tense with little or no dialogue. It lays out the beginning, middle, and end of the film, not shot-for-shot or in terms of scenes, but in broad summary form. Think of it as an overview of the movie script, whether the script is completed or not. Often a strong treatment is the basis for a movie studio to order the full script’s development. (Sometimes one wishes they were, on average, a bit stronger.)

I am not proposing you write a Hollywood-style treatment for your next novel or short story. I gave it that name because that’s my inspiration for this stage in the process. So, when you see that term here, don’t think of a Hollywood pitch. Think of your treatment as the first step in writing your story.

Writing a treatment for fiction is to prepare for writing a full three-act outline. A treatment challenges you with a series of questions that ask you, in sum, to honestly evaluate where your inspiration stands. It only takes a few minutes, but it makes the next steps even easier.

The fiction writer’s treatment

Let’s start by assuming you have an idea for a story. It might be an inkling, it might be an itch that needs to be scratched. It might be a big, bold idea, one you’ve mapped out in your head from a quiet, unpresupposing opening to a monumental, explosive finish. Maybe you’ve already written some notes. Maybe you’ve written a first page or a first chapter. Maybe you’ve written nothing at all. It could be a novel, it could be a short story, or it could be a dud.

Ask yourself the following questions in order. Use a clean sheet of paper or a fresh word processing document to record your answers; don’t do this in your head. Try to limit yourself to one to two sentences to answer each question. The next steps of this process will give you a chance to expound more. Right now the idea is to shake out that story idea and find its core.

Protagonist: Who is the main character of this story?
In one or two sentences, sum up your idea for the main character. If you don’t have a name for your character, just refer to him or her as “main character” or “protagonist” or “he” or “she”—don’t get hung up on names and ages right now. Don’t write about peripheral characterizing details, use this limited space to really drill down into his or her pertinent information.

Perhaps you have more than one main character in mind. Ask yourself if one of them is, in your mind, the true central character. If not, limit your answer to the bare number of characters central to your story.

Setup: What is the minimum of backstory, history, setting, or exposition that must be presented before the main story begins?
In one or two sentences summarize your main character’s situation when the story opens. It might be where she lives, or place of employment, or why she suffers from some limitation. Brevity is important. Limiting yourself to one or two sentences makes you really think what’s truly important about this character, why this character is important to you, and therefore to the reader.

If you think the answer is “None”—that no backstory must be presented to the reader—great, write that down. However, unless you’re Samuel Beckett reincarnated, most stories require some background or scene-setting before the events of the story begin. Even if it’s the name of the main character and where she lives, that’s backstory.

Inciting Incident: What event disrupts the rhythms and rituals of the main character’s daily life?
The Inciting Incident catalyzes the narration and launches the story. The disruption is usually external or physical, such as the family in Raisin in the Sun receiving a sizable inheritance, but it can be an internal realization or discovery.

Keep your answer to the disruption itself, not your main character’s reaction to it; that’s the next question.

Plot Point #1: What reverses the main character’s daily life such that there is no easy return to normalcy?
Another way to phrase this question is: What happens to prevent the character from simply ignoring the disruption that has occurred? For Raisin in the Sun, the grandmother uses the money as the down on a home in an all-white neighborhood, committing her 1959 African-American family to a precarious future.

Note that it’s possible for the Inciting Incident to be the first plot point. The nature of the disruption could be something impossible for the main character to ignore. (For example, he’s hit by a bus while crossing the street.) But often the inciting incident is not so monumental, even if it seems that way in your mind. Be honest: is there any way for your character to ignore or avoid the inciting incident? If so, you probably need to find a way to ensure there’s no way for her to turn away from it.

There should be no going back. That’s why I emphasize the word “reverses” in the question—there should be some event or decision, internal or external, that alters the trajectory of the main character’s daily life. If they can ignore the disruption and return to life as it was, most characters will. And there your story ends, most likely unsatisfactorily.

No going back

In my experience, the first three questions (Protagonist, Setup, Inciting Incident) answer themselves. When I’m inspired to write a story, I tend to have some idea of the character, their situation, and the event that launches the story proper. Answering those first three questions is largely an exercise in putting my inspiration onto the page, which is valuable in any case.

The fourth question (Plot Point #1) is usually the first challenging one. This is why I emphasize starting with the treatment. It forces you to honestly evaluate your story’s opening and ensure you’re not shortchanging the main character—or the reader.

Too often, underdeveloped fiction assumes that the main character will eagerly jump in to resolve the inciting incident head-on. It also assumes that the reader is along for the ride, that they won’t question why the character has taken on the challenge so willingly. Superheroes leap into action. More human characters look for ways to avoid leaping into action.

Consider Lolita. Confronted by the law and bouncing in and out of sanatoriums, Humbert Humbert resigns himself to moving in with Mrs. Haze, although he abhors her traditional domesticity. All evidence indicates he will simply abandon her and return to his lascivious ways. It’s when he sets his eyes on Haze’s 12 year-old daughter—the Inciting Incident—that Humbert’s “normal” life is turned over. Although he doesn’t want to return to the rhythm and rituals of his previous life, he has little recourse due to Mrs. Haze’s constant presence. Humbert engineers a chance to tussle with the girl—Plot Point #1—igniting his desires that form the remainder of the novel. Plot Point #1 is why there’s no going back for him.

(“Plot Point #1” is Field’s terminology. So far I’ve been unable to find a word or phrase I’m more comfortable with, so I’ve left it in.)

Here’s another example:

After work, a man goes to his girlfriend’s apartment. She announces that she’s pregnant. The man puts his jacket back on, walks downstairs, and hails a taxi. He goes to the airport, where he flies to Europe to put this unexpected event behind him.

This sounds forced to my ear, but the writer developing the story absolutely believed in it. It took the writer some time to realize he was railroading his main character to Rome in order to get to the juicy, intriguing part of the story that he wanted to tell.

My suggestion? Plot Point #1:

After work, a man goes to his girlfriend’s apartment. She announces that she’s pregnant. The man asks his girlfriend to consider terminating the pregnancy, but she’s committed for religious reasons. He walks downstairs and hails a taxi.

I’m not saying this solves every problem with the story, but it firms up the man’s motivation for his abrupt decision to flee. The girlfriend’s announcement is the Inciting Incident and her unwavering commitment is Plot Point #1. It ensures there’s no easy turning back. Otherwise, if your character can simply return to his or her hum-drum life, why wouldn’t they?

Part four: Completing the treatment