Over the course of writing Gunslinger to the Stars, I’ve learned some interesting new things about my writing process, as well as being reminded of some of the basic lessons I learned back when I was getting started. These lessons have helped me to have some fantastic writing days, like today, where I hit 2200 WPH at one point and knocked off 1.7k words before lunch.
Just a week ago, though, I was struggling to write anything, which was strange considering how well the story had been coming along up to that point. The realization that helped me to get through that and get back to writing strong was that my difficulty was a function of story structure, and that different parts of the story require a different process.
What follows are my personal conclusions about my own writing process, which may or may not be similar to your own. Every writer is different, so what works for me may not work for you. At the same time, there are enough similarities that I hope my own process may provide some insight into your own.
Four-Part Story Structure
First of all, let’s talk about story structure. There are a lot of different possible structures, but the most common one in the West is the three-act structure. This often echoes the hero’s journey, which goes something like this:
For purposes of this blog post, I’ll assume you’re already familiar with both the three-act structure and the hero’s journey. If not, there are plenty of other resources where you can learn about them in-depth.
I prefer to think in terms of four-part structure, however, where act two is divided into two halves. In typical three-act structure, the hero hits his lowest point at the midpoint of act two. This is also the midpoint of the story itself, where the hero reaches the nadir of the hero’s journey. In four-part structure, that midpoint is just treated like a plot point, dividing part two from part three. Everything else is the same.
Thus, when you frame a particular story in four-part structure, it looks like this:
- The Call to Adventure
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies
- The Darkest Hour
- The Final Battle
Part One: The Call to Adventure
The first part of the story typically starts in the ordinary world, until the inciting incident somewhere around the middle of part one calls the hero to adventure. He then either refuses the call (which usually leads to bad things because the call knows where you live), or he accepts it and has to fight off some threshold guardians to get into the realm of adventure (sometimes, he refuses it and has to fight the guardians). Typically around this point, he meets a mentor to help him on his way.
Prewriting: To get off to a good start, I have found that the key is to know (or at least have a good idea) how the story is going to end before I begin to write it. That way, I know that I’m starting in the right part and I have a general idea where I’m going. I don’t know how I’m going to get there yet, but that doesn’t really matter yet.
Writing: The hardest part about writing this part is the first scene. After that, it usually comes quite easily. It helps to do a bit of world building, or to outline the characters and their backstories, but it isn’t always necessary. Personally, I’ve found that I can discovery-write these things pretty well (and yes, if you haven’t guessed already, I’m a pantser).
Revising: This is usually the part that needs the most revising. It’s also the part that can get me into the most trouble if I don’t do it well. I’m a chronological writer, and if something in the story is seriously off, I have to go back and fix it before I can proceed to the end. I’ve forced myself to finish even when I knew that things were broken, and it only made the writing process worse. So for me, the beginning usually gets the most revision work, whether I plan on it or not.
Part Two: Tests, Allies, and Enemies
Part two is where the adventure really begins. The hero crosses the threshold into the unfamiliar world, and everything is new and exciting. This is also the part where things start to become truly dangerous. Not everyone is who they seem in this part, and the hero may fall into some traps. But the mentor is usually still there to help him get back up.
Prewriting: In my experience, this is the part that needs the least pre-writing. It’s almost always pure discovery. With the ending clearly in mind but still distant enough not to worry about, I can afford to let the story meander a little and take me to some unexpected places.
Writing: This is usually the easiest part of the story to write, for the same reasons as above. I can afford to do almost 100% discovery writing at this part, and it usually feels quite effortless. When the writing does get blocked, it’s usually because something in part one is totally broken.
Revising: Most of the revision process for part two consists of making sure that later events are properly foreshadowed. I usually don’t add enough foreshadowing when I write the first draft, so it’s essential to go back and add it later. Thankfully, this can usually be accomplished by a couple of tweaks, or adding a couple extra paragraphs to an already extant scene.
Part Three: The Darkest Hour
This is where the story gets real. The hero falls into a much larger trap than any of the others, and the mentor can no longer help him (usually because he’s dead). Alone, the hero has to find his own way out, usually hitting rock bottom along the way. Just when it looks like all is lost, some new twist sends the hero in a different direction, setting things up for the final act.
Prewriting: This is where prewriting goes from being unimportant to absolutely essential. Whereas in part two, I can afford to let the story meander a little bit, in part three I absolutely need direction. It’s not enough just to know how the story will ultimately end: at this point, I’ve found that I really need to map my way there.
Writing: This is also typically the most difficult part for me to write. However, when the prewriting is done well and the plot is set up properly, it’s actually not that bad. But it’s important to go really hard on your characters—to make life truly miserable for them. There can be no easy way outs for them, otherwise the entire story will suffer.
Revising: For part three, revising usually consists of putting scenes in the proper order, not in rewriting them completely from scratch. If the foundational elements of the previous two parts were set up correctly, then everything in part three will usually come out well too, but they’re almost always in the wrong order. Transitions then are the part that usually need the most cleanup.
Part Four: The Final Battle
At this point, the hero has a clear direction and a knowledge of how to get there. In climbing up from his lowest point, he finds the boon that will save the world, makes peace with the higher power, and comes back stronger than ever before. But the forces of evil have never been stronger either, and the clash marks the climax of the entire story. There may be a big damn hero moment, or a last minute rescue from the cavalry. There may also be a standoff with no apparent solution, or some truly complex power plays. Inevitably, though, there is a resolution, followed by a return (even if only to the world of adventure). The hero saves the world, gets the girl, and rides off into the sunset. Curtains, applause, and lights.
Prewriting: By this point, most of the prewriting has already been done. The important thing is to have the flexibility to change and adjust, because this is the point where the story often surprises me. It is also the point where discovery-writing is often the most satisfying.
Writing: At this point, I’m usually tearing it up in a white-hot heat of creative energy. It’s extremely rare that I’ll get blocked at this point, but if I do, the key is almost always to just write through it. Often, I’ll make notes of things to change in revision and just barrel ahead—and it works, because there’s no need to set anything up for later. This is the moment of truth, where everything comes together.
Revising: Most of the revision at this point of the story has to do with tying up loose ends. That’s usually not a problem for me, though, because I tend to write very clean. If there is a loose end, it’s usually something that I’ve made a note to fix earlier in the story. For me, the ending is usually the part that needs revising the least.
So there you have it. The biggest lesson I’ve learned just recently is how important it is not to neglect the prewriting aspect of the creative process, especially around part-three. When everything is in place, it makes the story flow so much better.
What are your thoughts? Any plotters or outliners out there with a different take on the process? Everyone is different, but we’re all basically trying to do the same thing, so it’s interesting to see what works for different people!