I plan my books before I write them – before you gasp and recoil, let me reassure you: I’m not going to try and force the importance of planning! What I’d like to do is share a tool that I think may help to strengthen stories if you plan or not: the narrative spark.
You’ve probably heard the saying ‘plan backwards, write forwards’, with the idea being that defining the culmination of a story allows you to properly design the path towards it. I personally agree with this line of thinking but even when writing to a pre-determined plan, the third act of some stories can still come off as a little untextured.
Here’s what I think the problem is: a lot of the time, designing the plot of a story can be outlining the broad strokes of what will happen. Depending on how deep your planning goes, this often means that Act 3 is just a series of resolutions. Now that’s absolutely fine – it’s the purpose of the third act after all – I think it’s missing a trick though.
The third act of a story shouldn’t just be the culmination of main plot-threads, but of every aspect of the story up to this point. You’ve probably heard of ‘Chekhov’s Gun‘ (or some variation of it). Distilled to it’s most basic form, the idea is that whatever is established in a story must be resolved. You could actually see it the opposite way round though. Whatever is resolved must first be established. Therefore, If you want your third act to be finely embroidered, you’ll have to establish every thread earlier on in the story.
I’ve found that there’s a really easy way of visualising this. Imagine a wire: at one end is a battery, and at the other end the wire is sparking. Every ‘spark‘ that you want in your third act should have it’s ‘wire‘ and ‘battery‘ placed much earlier on in the story.
I can hear you already: “Well, obviously, that’s how stories work“. And you’re right! But – how granular do you go with that thinking?
For example, if your protagonist delivers a stinging one-liner at the very end of the third-act’s action sequence, the ‘spark‘ is much brighter if it’s been established earlier on in the story. The line’s importance comes not only from its timely delivery, but how it’s an emphasis or inversion or irony of something that has previously been established. It could be used to offer a heartbreaking gut-punch or an exhilarating air-punch.
That’s a pretty easy example to make, so let’s think a little deeper.
What if, in the third act, the protagonist has to be delayed in their pursuit of their goal for some reason? They bump into someone, for example. Bumping into some random nameless passerby is a commonly-used narrative device to increase tension in a sequence, but what if you could make it a ‘spark’ as well? Perhaps the protagonist might have issues with physical contact and pushing past someone would show how she is now focused enough on her goal that she has overcome it? Perhaps the character she has bumped into was a mean-spirited person she met before but who is now issuing some encouragement? Perhaps the person is a very minor character whom the protagonist suddenly realises has actually been against her reaching her goal this whole time?
None of those examples would change the plot’s direction in any way but might have a real ‘spark’ of narrative weight that wasn’t there before and would really add texture and emotional impact to the story. Of course, for that to be the case the ‘battery’ would need to be placed much earlier in the story and perhaps referred to several times before the spark.
Think even deeper though. Imagine if every line of dialogue and every action the protagonist(s) undertook in a story’s denouement was a ‘spark’ that resolved even tiny details that had been pre-established – that would be an amazing ending to the story! To use the visual metaphor again, the end of the story would then be like a knitted-bundle of wires all sparking at carefully determined times.
Let’s reapply this to ‘plan backwards, write forwards’ (I’ll cover planning first, but if you’re a non-planner, I do have some really useful tips for you too so stick around!).
Personally I like to map out the broad shapes of the story first. Planning the actions in the crisis and climax and applying the relevant foreshadowing. Then I think about how I can add texture with sparks to the scenes in the story’s late stages. Working backwards to fit the wires and batteries for all those sparks then adds the texture into the earlier stages of the stories. Having a defined spark gives much more narrative weight the things that characters discuss and work with/against during their journey to the story’s finale.
This can also help if I’m stuck when planning the broad structure. I’ll experiment with adding in a random narrative device to get the action moving. As long as I then treat that narrative device as a spark and fit the battery and wire earlier on it then won’t be random in the story as it has been properly established and explored.
As a further little tip here, it’s usually a good idea to fit those ‘batteries’ into a place in the story that has a little more breathing room; expository sections, or points of low drama. Either that, or allow them space in action sequences to stand as a point of reference, i.e. if a line is to be a ‘spark’ in Act 3, when it’s first spoken in an Act 1 action sequence allow some space to establish it as your ‘battery’ point – have the other characters react to how strange a line it is, for example.
So how might you use this as a non-planner? It’s actually very easy.
As you’re writing forward, make a note of everything that could be used as a battery for a spark later on. If you treat every incidental action or phrase or small character trait as a battery, you can make sure you wire it into the story every time it’s relevant and then make sure it has a ‘spark’ to close out that wire in Act 3. A key concern here though is to make sure you’re not starting too many batteries that you can’t spark later on.
One final tip that’s suitable for non-planners and planners alike is that you can even add in ‘sparks’ in the opening stages of the story to hint at things that have happened before anything even began – it can really help to contextualise the story. Let me use an example to explain what I mean. In The Big Lebowski a large amount of the conversations that The Dude and Walter have in the opening stages of the story actually include phrases taken from President George Bush’s speeches regarding the First Gulf War. If you didn’t know that it doesn’t matter. You still understand what’s going on in the story. If you did know that though, then those few phrases really help to embed the story in the early 90s.
You can use this technique even if you’re writing in a completely fictional world. All characters are charged with tiny parts of their environment. If each of their lines, traits or actions are taken from or informed by music they like, things they’ve overheard or people they’ve known in the past then they’ll be alive with so many tiny little sparks.
So I hope that has given you a useful tool that you can use in the future. Hopefully it’ll help all your stories crackle with sparks!*
*Disclaimer: make sure you have any actual wiring work completed by a qualified electrician!
After writing since he could hold a pen, Duncan Stockwell graduated from a BA in Creative Writing and MA in Teaching Creative Writing.
He designs and publishes the TideBreakers series of stories and card games at tidebreakers.com, but is currently taking a break to work on a series of fantasy novellas. You can also find him on Twitter.