I recently shared about giving up on writing novels and accidentally discovering the problem with my abandoned manuscripts. Confusion about how to proceed with the trilogy I envisioned prompted me to turn to the gods of the internet for help. A few clicks later, I stumbled upon the cure for my writing woes.
My problem is embarrassingly basic. My stories –finished and unfinished alike — revolve around events occurring at particular points in time rather than any particular character. For evidence, I offer my pal’s question about my latest abandoned manuscript: Who is the maim character?
I’m not trying to be avant garde or make some kind of literary statement. People have tried to tell me this for years, but I just didn’t get it. #SlowLearner
I stumbled upon the three act structure Aristotle talked about for anything with a beginning, middle, and end. My epiphany wasn’t about the structure so much as its focus on the main character. Suddenly, I got it. To paraphrase James Carville, it’s the main character, stupid.
Each of the three acts has a specific purpose revolving around some challenge or conflict the main character faces. Will our hero succeed or fail? Act one is the setup, act two is the confrontation, and resolution comes in act three. Opinions about the merits of three act structure vary, but for me, it’s a revelation.
In hindsight, joining the Athens Writers Workshop after I wrote the memoir was like skipping college and leaping from high school to graduate school. The members — including a few published authors — had been writing stories for years. My grammar, spelling, and composition skills were adequate, but I knew nothing about writing fiction.
My first two novels went through the Workshop from beginning to end, 5,000 words at a time. Every two weeks for more than two years, the other members ripped my work to shreds. I learned a ton from them, and they tried to tell me about the main character thing, but I was too focused on fixing individual scenes to see the larger problem.
The editor for Whippersnapper (which stated out with three main characters) also tried to tell me. She even sent a character sketch template with all the critical elements of the three act structure. I still didn’t get it.
Finally, five years and four novels after becoming a published author, I get it. My abandoned manuscripts were doomed from the start. Every word was setup in search of a story with no middle or end. No wonder I hit a wall.
Having diagnosed the problem, I grew excited about writing another novel. Publishing the trilogy would mean finding another publisher or self-publishing, so I decided to work on a story for Dreamspinner. Next time, I’ll tell you how that’s going.