Mystery writer Diana Orgain invited me to be a part of a writer’s blog hop. I agreed, then realized I’d already done this particular hop. And then when I tried to get my writer friends to join, they told me they’d already done this hop too. It’s like an insidious chain letter. (And I remember when those were actual letters, with stamps).
So I figured I’d tweak the hop a bit and focus on writing process, specifically plot structures.
There are lots of plot structures out there. The 3-act structure, the brilliant Blake-Snyder Beat Sheet, and on and on. My current favorite is a four-act story structure from Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, a book I highly recommend. Though when it comes to the finale, I prefer Blake-Snyder’s five point finale described in his book Save the Cat (also fabulous for writers). Here’s an analysis of a four-act structure of Dead Until Dark, the first Sookie Stackhouse southern vampire novel, by Charlaine Harris.
Act 1: The first act sets the stakes for the hero (or heroine) and layers in the foreshadowing.
– Opening scene and hook. With the catalyst in the first scene, the action starts right away. As an example of this in a paranormal mystery, the first scene is where the hero finds the corpse. Or in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, a vampire walks into a bar…
– The hero reacts, ineffectively but logically, usually rejecting the call, as in the hero’s journey. Sookie rescues the vampire, Bill, from the Rattrays, two vampire “drainers.”
– Inciting incident. A twist occurs which forces the hero to get involved. The Rattrays attack Sookie, and Bill saves her. Now she is indebted – and connected through blood – to Bill.
– The hero reacts to the inciting incident, and there’s foreshadowing of the final scene, or the low point to come. Sookie and Bill’s relationship deepens, and Sookie learns that a woman has been murdered.
– More reaction – the hero tries to figure out what it all means (and fails). Sookie goes to Bill’s house to help organize electrical work and is confronted by three evil vampires. She begins to understand just how dark and dangerous vampires can be and has second thoughts about her budding relationship with Bill.
– First plot point. Something new arrives and everything changes. What the hero thought was true no longer is. (E.g. in a mystery, the person the hero thought was guilty now ends up murdered). Sookie and Rene discovers the dead body of fellow waitress, Dawn, who has been murdered.
Act 2: Response. In Act 2, inner demons rule the hero, making an effective response impossible.
– Retreat. The hero retreats to lick his/her wounds. Depressed, exhausted, Sookie is questioned by the police.
– Regroup. The hero tries to get his bearings, and try to figure out just what’s going on after the revelation in the first plot point, often with the help of his sidekicks/aids. Sookie tells Bill about the murders, and that both the victims had bite marks. But they weren’t exanguinated.
– The hero attempts to take action and fails, (those inner demons are at it!). Bill takes Sookie to the vampire bar, Fangtasia and learns the murdered women spent time there, but no more. She also attracts the unwelcome attention of the vampire, Eric, revealing her mind reading powers to him. First kiss with Bill.
– Set up for the pinch point, foreshadowing. Detective Andy Bellefleur is spending more time in the bar, looking for Dawn’s killer, and harasses Sookie. Sookie goes on a date with her boss at the bar, Sam, to hear Bill speak about the Civil War.
– Pinch point: the villain makes his presence felt. The hero or someone the hero cares about is attacked, another murder is committed, etc. Sookie returns home and discovers her grandmother, Adele, has been brutally murdered.
– The hero reacts to the pinch point, retreating, regrouping, responding, and failing in his attempt. Sookie believes the killer came for her, and when he found her grandmother, killed her grandmother instead. The funeral takes place. Sookie deals with the aftermath of the murder, cleaning house, etc. Bill comforts Sookie, and they make love.
– Midpoint: New information enters the story (e.g. a different lead to follow), activating a new decision on the part of the hero. Jason is questioned at the police station. Sookie’s relationship with Bill is off and on, as Sookie struggles with the ramifications of dating a vampire.
Act 3: The hero becomes proactive. He’s still fighting his inner demons, but now the hero understands he has to behave differently in order to succeed.
– Hero chases leads (in a mystery) or actively tries to resolve the problem. After other vampires are killed by an angry mob, Sookie commits to Bill. Jason asks her to read minds of men in the bar to help find the killer and get him off the hook. Bill urges her to do so.
– Hero seeks help from a potential ally (will the ally betray him? Or give him information or a magical item to help him move forward?). Bill is forced to bring Sookie to Eric, who demands she use her mind reading to catch an embezzler (this is an inversion of the hero seeking help), and dropping her into more trouble. She witnesses vampire blood lust.
– Another pinch point. The antagonist attacks/makes his presence felt again. Someone kills Sookie’s cat.
– The hero regroups and responds. Using the mystery example, he chases more leads, some of which may have stemmed from the latest attack. Bill must go to New Orleans so he provides Sookie with protection – the vampire Bubba. Sookie brings home a stray collie, who turns out to be Sam – she learns he’s a shifter, and she understands that Bill’s condition isn’t caused by a virus. He’s supernatural, like Sam. Another girl is killed.
– All hope is lost – something occurs which appears to doom the hero’s efforts. Sookie’s brother, Jason, is arrested for the murders. The hero suffers the dark night of the soul, feeling like a failure, questioning his ability to succeed. All hope is lost/dark night of the soul can occur in two different scenes or happen in the same scene. Sookie reaches out to Bill but can’t contact him. She experiences her dark night of the soul. Bubba chases off an intruder.
– 2nd plot point: Final injection of new information which launches the hero toward resolution. (E.g. in a mystery, no new clues are allowed after this point). Sookie realizes someone has framed her brother. She gets Jason out of jail on bail.
Act 4: Finale. No new information to solve the problem is allowed here. The hero is now the catalyst for the plot. He has conquered his inner demons and is behaving like a true hero.
– Anything can happen in the finale. Sookie discovers Bubba has been disabled, and the killer is stalking her. She fights back, taking down the killer, but is badly injured and lands in the hospital. Bill returns from New Orleans and explains his absence. Eric sends flowers. Sam stops by in animal form. And Sookie realizes her life will never be the same.
About the Author
Kirsten Weiss is the author of Steam and Sensibility, a steampunk novel of suspense, and the Riga Hayworth series of paranormal mysteries: the urban fantasy, The Metaphysical Detective, The Alchemical Detective, The Shamanic Detective, The Infernal Detective and The Elemental Detective. Get her books on Amazon, Kobo, or Barnes & Noble. She’s currently working on book 6 in the Riga Hayworth series, The Hoodoo Detective.