Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Fiona Harper On Writing: Let's start at the very beginning...

I have to Iadmit it, I'm a bit of a structure junkie.  Okay, I'm a lot of a structure junkie.  I’ve always been that way.  Don’t just show me the detail, show me how it fits into the big picture.  Don’t get me wrong – I love those close-up little details too. I just get even more excited when I see those delicious little nuggets in context.

Anyway, I thought I would indulge my love of structure in my new monthly column for the PHS!  For the next few months I’m going to be talking story structure – but not just story structure on its own.  Romances are character-driven stories, so I’m going to be chatting about all the yummy things I’ve been reading over the last couple of years about how story structure and character development go together.

Let’s start at the very beginning…
Okay, so let’s jump right in with the basics! I tend to plot in a classic three-act structure. In a nutshell:

Act one – sets your story and your characters up, and introduces a thread of conflict.
Act two – sends them on an adventure or course of action, with escalating stakes and intensifying conflict.
Act three – sees the climax of the story, which brings about the resolution of that conflict
Today I’m going to be looking at the very first part of the first act.  Although this might seem like a pre-amble to the main action of the story, it’s a very important part.  I see this as the seed plot of the story.  Everything that happens in your story should have its beginnings here: the plot, the characters, the conflict…  Sometimes these things might be hints and shadows of things to come, buried so deep we hardly notice them, but they need to be there.

Ordinary World
This is what Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey calls The Ordinary World section of the story.  I think that’s a great description.  I basically see this as the ‘before’ shot of my characters.  They’re going along, minding their own business, doing things the way they’ve always done them, but little do they know change is coming, and it’s going to rock their world!

But before they get that jolt into the adventure of the story, it’s good to see them in their natural habitat, indulging in their customary behaviour.  Why?  We’re not going to understand the significance of where they end up at the end of the story, why those hard-fought battles were so important, if we don’t know where they’ve come from.

The ‘before’ picture
Sometimes this ‘ordinary world’ or ‘set up’ stage can last a few chapters; sometimes only a few pages or paragraphs – it will all depend on the needs of the individual book – but how ever long this introductory section of your story is, we should see where your character has room to grow, how they need to change, and be able to spot the seeds of their coming conflict.

Flaw? What flaw?
Dara Marks, in her excellent book, Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc, describes what she calls the fatal flaw.  Some people see this as being a characteristic or trait of the protagonist that will need to be worked through, but I love Marks’s take on the subject.  She defines the fatal flaw as a method of behaviour, a survival system, that the character has developed in order to cope with life.

I like this idea.  It allows for more depth than a character who is just born stubborn or has a naturally short fuse.  If the fatal flaw is a survival system and not just a trait, it means the character themselves is the author of that flawed behaviour, it wasn’t just something handed out to them by God at birth.  Whether they have realised it or not, the character has created their own problem, and they are going to have to delve inside themselves if they are going to solve it.  See what I mean?  Juicy.  Instantly, we’re talking about internal conflict.

Basically, the protagonist has been behaving a certain way, and that method of living has served them (sort of) well until now.  They may not be joyously happy, but they aren’t in the depths of despair either – it’s a trade-off that allows them to keep the status quo.  But once the plot gets going, that survival system is not going to measure up.  It’s not going to work in this new situation.

To help me get a handle on my character’s fatal flaw, I like to sum it up in a phrase – a motto, if you like.  The silent subconscious drumbeat that informs their every action.

I'm going to use the film French Kiss as an example:
Kate, a history teacher, is engaged to Charlie. Kate is a warm, loving woman, but she has a flaw: she’s scared of everything!  She won’t fly, she won’t eat cheese and she doesn’t like foreigners (especially the French).  To Kate, the world is a scary place and she hangs tight onto everything to try and keep herself safe.  She plans, she worries, but she doesn’t really live.  If I could sum up Kate’s motto, it would be: Safety first!

Can we see where Kate’s going to have to grow? Of course we can!  She’s going to have to let go of those iron reins of control and learn to live a little, because who wants to live a narrow, neurotic, clenched life? 

We can also see the seeds of the coming conflict: as lovely as Kate is, even Charlie is having a little wobble.  She’s got their whole life planned out for the next sixty years and it’s starting to make him twitchy.  Not a lot, but there’s a hint of it there, even though we see he clearly loves Kate.

It's all there: character traits, conflict, an idea of where the plot might be going, but in seed form.  It's going to take something out of the ordinary to germinate that sucker and see it grow...

Next time: catalysts, triggers, calls and inciting incidents!

Fiona Harper's latest release The Ballerina Bride (US title)/Dancing With Danger (UK title) is available now at Harlequin, Mills&Boon and Amazon.

Ballerina on the run!
Prima ballerina Allegra's spent her life on stage. But now there are whispers that the superstar's lost her sparkle… So when she's offered a week on a tropical island, for survival expert Finn McLeod's TV show, she leaps at it!

Finn's frankly unimpressed—how will this fragile-looking girl survive life in the wild? But for Allegra, it's not the island that's the problem, but her all-consuming crush on the unavailable Finn! Gorgeous on TV, close up he's devastating—and Allegra's hours of disciplined dance practice are useless when it comes to resisting temptation….


  1. Great piece, and incredibly useful too. Structure was always my problem when writing, and I look forward to the next instalment (assuming this is Part 1 of 3...)

  2. At least three, Henri! I can't seem to stop rambling when I get on this subject.

  3. The Power of the Transformational Arc was indeed an excellent book, I enjoyed reading it. I will recommend it to anyone.
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