Monday, November 30, 2009

Working Toward the Second Act

So last Thursday night I finished writing Act One of "Cocke & Bull." The next step is to write Chapter Eleven, which is essentially a trip across a couple of colonies and down to Georgia. I have to think of some event that will occur during this chapter to avoid it's being nothing but a travelogue. But that's a pretty trivial challenge.

The larger challenge remains writing Act Two. This second act should be around 40,000 words long, have its own story arc and 3-act structure, and neatly connect the first and third acts of the novel's overall shape. When I was writing my original outline for Act Two, I wasn't at all clear about what was going to happen in it, though I knew how the act would end. I'm one of those writers who starts with the idea of the ending and works backwards from there to the beginning to sort out plot and character evolution.

So I've been sort of brooding over Act Two since Thursday, letting it stew and seeing if I'd have any ideas. I knew I wanted the middle of the book to be a sort of novella that bridges the outer acts, and I knew I wanted the middle to have a three-part structure of its own, but I didn't know what that structure would be. I was missing two things: an idea of what the essential conflicts of Act Two were (and who they were between), and an event that would trigger the climactic chapter of this act. Last night I sorted all of this out.

One of the writerly conceits of this book--the structural narrative devices I'm using, that is--is the idea of repetition. Images and events keep getting repeated by different characters in different settings with different meanings. It occured to me that I could have a character do something 2/3 of the way through Act Two that was done 2/3 of the way through Act One, and it would have heightened effect in the second act, and the consequences of this action would be similar in Act Two to what they were in Act One, but much more dramatic for the main characters. Also, repetition of this action will make the irony implicit in the plot more apparent. Further, everything about this action and its consequences is true to character for all the players and readers will see that it is inevitable. So it's all Win, which makes me happy.

I still have to sort out how to make this happen across nine longish chapters, how to keep the tension growing across 40K words without boring or exhausting the reader, and how to avoid getting to the climax of Act Two without making the act either a series of episodes that do nothing but pad the length of the novel, or a bunch of digressions about the nature of man and that sort of thing. In other words, things have to keep happening that have to do with the essential conflicts of the book (both the outer conflicts of Act One and Act Three, and the inner conflict played out in Act Two). There must be, as John Gardner said too often, profluence.

My plan (though I should really write Chapter 11 first) is to sit me down at lunch today and expand my outline, and find out what necessary events and crises are called for by the book.


  1. I am in awe of your writing technique and wish I had half the patience and work ethic that you do. Truly, I am your biggest fan and I have no idea what your book is about. I can NOT wait to read it when it's published and I'll even pay full price for it. LOL.

    As to the "event" you need to further the story so it doesn't read like a "travelogue" mentioned you needed a bridge of some sort for the arc...well, how about an event that has to do with a bridge...burning, erected, uncrossable, jumping/falling/pushed off. Just a thought.

  2. Piedmont: One of the things I began to believe a long time ago is that there is no art and there are no miracles; there is only discipline. So I try to be very rigorous and considering with the way I approach fiction and writing. Hopefully, it's beginning to pay off. Though possibly I'll just end up writing very carefully-crafted but very dull novels. I lack the critical distance to know, frankly. But I hope that when this book is published some day, you and a whole lot of other people will read it. And pay full price for your copies!

    I was thinking that the "event" I need for Chapter 11 has something to do with a boat. More importantly, this event has to be connected with (via foreshadowing) the beginning of Act Three, so I'll have to think about it for a few more days.

  3. Fair winds and following seas, Mr. Bailey

  4. That's a tall order, Scott. At least you have a direction to move in. I also plot backwards, but without nearly as much 'wherewithall.'

    All the best to you with your next chapters!

  5. Scott, this all sounds very cool. I'm excited to see the finished product, or a draft of it at least. I'm curious about this 3-act within a 3-act structure. Curiouser and curiouser.

  6. Davin: I'm discovering that everything I do with this novel is based on 3-part structure. Every scene is tripartite. Every chapter is a 3-act play in miniature. The first act is a longer 3-act play. The second act is structured the same way (in brief: protagonist waits for a certain event. protagonist realizes event will not come, and tries to accept that. protagonist realizes he can't accept that event won't come, and tries to force event to happen, with mayhem of various sorts resulting, the mayhem leading neatly into the third act). The third act, from what few notes I have so far, is another miniature 3-act play. It makes the whole story easier for me to grasp and the internal structure seems to make a lot of sense to me. There are all these nested dramatic arcs and I think it's way cool. I also hope that this nested tripartite structure is invisible to the reader. So when you see the ms, you have to forget we've had this conversation.