It was late and Chloe was desperate. She’d been sitting on this fucking novel for the last 3 years like a goose egg, but nothing was hatching. Hell, the novel wasn’t much more than a simple pitch. But now and then more details would emerge. It was cooking.
It wasn’t far from most pitches I hear. Yeah, I’m working on a novel seems to mean, “I’ve chosen the literary form, and every once in a while I get inspired and shoe horn some idea into this project I’ve been dragging around.”
But back to Chloe. I saw that she had the energy to be working on this novel every day if she knew how. How to lay it all out, a giant story, and knock it out, one piece at a time. If there’s something that important to someone, you’d think they’d just be able to do it. But block doesn’t work that way. Block means, the bigger you make something, the harder it is to write.
But that’s sort of where this method I’ve been developing comes in. It’s not some quack method on writing something in a few days or weeks or really much about telling stories at all. It’s based on a lot of tried and true task management experience in many fields. It’s kinda my research paper for my early thirties.
Many of us know the basic building blocks of a story. Yet still struggle with a blank page. It’s my theory that we struggle with more than story craft when less writing getting done. Not the what why or who but the how. How do writers write, every day, rain or shine?
How does one get up everyday with something manageable to accomplish. How does someone get from not knowing where to start, to knowing when they’re finished?
Really small pieces of paper, it turns out.
The trouble was Chloe had more of her story than she could remember at any one time. It had gotten past being talked about. It was ready to be coached out. It was all upstairs, it just wasn’t in front of her, where she could see it. So, one day while she was trying to tell me about it, I ran downstairs onto the porch with a cork board in one hand and a pad of sticky notes in the other. We were going to catch all these random sentences, one at a time, on paper small enough to hold one at a time.
But we had to pull it out quick. 10 scenes per act, on those fucking 3M yellow sticky notes. Way fucking easier than index cards with thumb tacks. 4 acts, (yes 4), so 40 cards total. Could she spin together 40 ideas in a row, or more precisely, could we do it together, in an hour. Luckily it was morning, our energy was good and all she needed was to borrow a pair of hands. I’d do the writing. Sharpies too, so she could see from the couch, as I moved the ashtray and asked her to tell me something first.
“How does it begin?”, I asked? “I want it to begin in a grocery store”, was her immediate reply. Lydia, her main character begins in her mind there. I write it down and slap it on the board. Top left. Chloe realizes there’s something new in front of her. It’s a frame about as wide as her arms to put the entire story inside. We were going to get everything in her head on it in the next 39 cards.
I fired off the next prompt. Then what happens? The gears turn, her eyes reach upwards. Well, she’s going to give birth to the main character, so we might as well do their first date. I write the next card. “1st date.” What happens on their date? And I tack it up…
The 1st act moves pretty quickly. At the end of the first act we knew we had to get to a certain turning point in the life of her main character. Something that will move the story in a new direction.
Now, I mentioned there were 4 acts. For most of my life, I was told, at least in film, their are acts. 1 short one at the beginning to set up the story, 1 long one in the middle to tell the story and 1 short one at the end to wrap everything up. Syd Field famously advocated this idea. The problem then becomes the insurmountable 2 act. The hour of content you have to come up with with few tent poles to guide you. Now, granted, stuck in the middle of the 2nd act is a mid-story turning point. At minute 60 in a 2 hour movie, the story turns again. Just like at the end of the first act. So why wasn’t it 4 acts, I thought? 4 fits so much better on a board, allows the writer to break the story into equal pieces, etc. It’s an obvious edit to the paradigm Mr. Fields established and I’m making it.
In order to get through the 2nd and 3rd acts quickly, since they are the most laborious and the place most likely to get struck, is to start from each each of the board and work your way inward. Of course, telling it in order is always easiest, but sometimes, writers know little more than the big moments in the middle. Those go at the end of the 2nd act and the end of the 3rd. Everything else will likely have to be coached out.
I gave Chloe the cliche ideas when she asked for one. Not really on purpose, it just happens that way. The 1st new idea is usually more obvious and derivative than the ones that come after. But story ideas build that way. Each new sticky note was something she’d say, something she was pleased with. The point was to get the board covered in a single sitting and to do so with minimal friction. Telling her at this point that any of her ideas were not good enough would’ve stopped the creativity from flowing. Would’ve engaged her judgement and we didn’t want that. I felt as though I was stringing a loose spider’s web around the scope of the story. The frame of the cork board helping, the sticky notes covering the brown cork looked like a conquering. It also kind of resembled a progress bar. At 2 acts we were 50% done.
She was really pulling ideas out of the back of her mind by the 3rd act. Asking a lot more questions. If some of them seemed good. My answer was always yes. It does no good to stop and meander over a single sticky note. These things can change later. Where are we going? Sometimes she’d say, “I was to include so and so in there. Describing the briefest glimmer of an image or scene she wanted the chance to write. But it didn’t come immediately after in the story’s timeline. At that point, those ideas were just stuck somewhere in the middle of the 2nd or 3rd act beginning or end. The idea is not always to write in order or to know everything about your story, but to fill the board in an hour. I know I’ve said that already but any other goal that getting 10 cards per row on the board, will make the process grind to a halt at this early stage.
As we began the 4th act, the easy act, it was clear that Chloe had an ending scene that needed to be earned. It required the main character and his mother, Lydia from the 1st act to reconcile it a way that was more poetic and indicative of their relationship throughout the novel than anything happening to them in the last act. So the last act was exposed, during this process for just how sparse it was in her head. Which believe it or not is a good thing.
We didn’t need to know every detail of the last act just now. We needed to finish the board before we both got too tired. Leaving it to languish. There’s a point when cliche will get you from point A to point B and the writer’s needn’t fear this point. The real work is in these moments. Writer’s finish. And that desire to just fill the board with ideas really drove the final acts. We’d fill in more ideas, stacking them vertically under other ideas when the scenes were more substantial in our heads. Her head was nearly poured onto this board. What now sat before us was everything she’d ever mentioned or thought about as relates to the story, in some order that could be changed easily later. It was manifest on that board, in the real world and that was the most important aspect of this exercise. We could follow it along with our eyes from scene to scene. Quick sentences like “Gets picked up by a trucker in the Badlands” was the anchor to an entire scene between main character and his world.
We were done. Her energy spiked, what a relief to see it out there, to construct a timeline and see it. “You think it’s a novel?,” she asked? “Of course,” I responded. At no point did my judgement need to be interjected as writing coach. The writer and the work is incredibly fragile at this point. We clinked glasses to our accomplishment and I put the board upstairs. The workout was over for now. I knew the rest of the path to get those 40 sticky notes to the point of writing fiction prose but that’s for Part 2 and 3.
For now, try it yourself. If you’ve got an idea for any sized piece. Invite a friend over and ask them to do the writing while you say it out loud, beat by beat. Features will have 40 cards, novels maybe more, maybe less. Short films, I’ve found do well with 3 acts of 5 cards each. A short can only pivot so many times, but certainly experiment with the board and the cards. I want to hear about your accomplishments and revisions to this process.
In the next article, we discuss outlining further, going into the specifics of each scene in depth and finally transferring that outline to a form where we are guaranteed to start each new blank page, each new scene with at least enough information to moving and know where you’d like to end up.