Many years ago, I was living in Boston during the time I first began intentionally trying to move from “hobby writer” (which I think I’ve been rather continuously since childhood) to something more like “semi-pro” (that is, try and get a few things published somewhere, and maybe get paid something for it once in awhile).
As part of this process, I attended writing classes at a local writing center (in Boston that would be GrubStreet, and I don’t mean the New York food magazine), and I also went to a lot of science fiction and fantasy literary conventions. (I highly recommend these two general approach of getting more involved in the literary world.)
I can’t remember if it was at Boskone or Arisia, but at one of these Boston cons I attended a writing panel that featured Jeanne Cavelos, founder of the Odyssey Writing Workshop for writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Ms. Cavelos did not have any idea who I was (nameless young writer in the crowd), and I’m pretty sure she still does not — nor will she probably ever — have any idea who I am.
But she changed my writing life.
The Three-Egg Structure
Jeanne Cavelos massively upgraded my approach to writing by introducing me to one of the most common and useful templates for framing the big-picture structure of a story: The Three-Egg Structure.
Wait what, you might be saying. Three… did you say… eggs? You mean the Three-Act Structure, correct?
No, no, no — I assure you I mean eggs. You see, Ms. Cavelos has a very strong northern midwestern accent (one might even say, an eggcent). Every time she said the word “act,” I — admittedly sitting near the back and having never heard of this system before for context — definitely heard the word “egg” instead, and all of my furiously scribbled notes from that panel reflect this word swap. (In retrospect, perhaps it was also a good accidental lesson in dialect.) To this day, I think of my novel structures in units of eggs!
Now, I won’t bother to explain the Three-Egg Structure or how to use it here, as there are plenty of resources on the Interwebs already (if you search for “Three-Act Structure” mind you). In particular, there’s a good template for story planning based on this structure on Matt Gemmell’s site. I took the Excel sheet he has posted for download and modified it to my own preferences, and you can do the same! For reference, my version (as both Libre Office and Microsoft Word) is below.
The structure does have its critics, and, you know, fine. But I’ve found it to be an incredibly useful tool for helping me draft and revise. I also find the Three-Egg Structure incredibly useful for merging the two camps of a separate writer concept: Plotting vs Pantsing.
Plotting vs Pantsing, and the Third Way
Possibly the most annoying question (in my mind) that writers ask each other is “Are you a Plotter or a Pantser?” What they mean is, do you plan or plot things out in advance before you start writing, or do you start with a concept and just write “by the seat of your pants” until you get somewhere? The reason I find this question perfectly useless is that I don’t think anyone actually purely does one or the other, even if they say they do. Further, I don’t think it can even be thought of as a continuum, or sliding scale.
I think the more useful question is: What aspects of writing do you generally like to plan in advance, and which aspects do you prefer to discover on-the-fly?
John DeDakis, in a course I’ve blogged about before, introduced me to the term “plantsing,” or mixing and matching techniques from both camps to develop an overall method that works for you, something I’ve long believed in but never had a word for. Thanks John.
So here’s how I plants, and how I finally tie the two seemingly separate segments of this blog post together:
- Start with a concept, vague idea, situation, or inner conflict/twist that I think is interesting. Determine what kind of person has the most to lose in this situation, and sketch out a protagonist that would fit this tension.
- Determine an initial twist that would be jarring, alarming, or terrible for the protagonist — something significant enough that it is irreversible, and forces a reaction (e.g. no reasonable person in the protagonist’s position could ignore it or choose to look the other way). This goes in “Plot Point 1” on the Three-Egg template. All very Plotting so far!
- Start from an interesting situation that occurs prior to Plot Point 1 and helps establish the world and the protagonist’s relationship to it. Free-write (or pants) my way from that situation forward towards Plot Point 1, taking things as they come and allowing the character to react as I think they “naturally” would to the exposition and set up of the world. Since I know where they need to get to in vague terms (the kind of “break” that needs to happen for Plot Point 1), I can nudge things in that direction, even though I don’t know the exact form it’s going to take or how long it will take to get there. This is more of a Pantsing approach… I like to see where the character and the idea lead me, and I generally don’t know what’s going to happen next.
- When I reach Plot Point 1, I retroactively fill in the rest of the template for the First Egg. Usually this makes clear which threads that have emerged in the exploratory drafting are actually essential and important. I’ve come back up for air and am doing a bit of Plotting to sort through what I have and set the course for the next bout of Pantsing.
- Repeat the above for each major plot point, recognizing that the Turning Point is a change from reaction to action for the protagonist (where they actually stop believing this is going to fix itself somehow and realize they have to Do Something or its just going to keep getting worse).
- When nearing the Climax, reconnect the personal to the global… how does what’s going on for the protagonist tie in some meaningful way to the overarching / background events that are happening around her? The Climax should be a breaking point for both simultaneously.
- Finish the draft and revise later! Use the Three-Egg template as a coarse tool for organizing general structure in broad strokes on the revision.
Again, you can always move things around, change the overall order of things, change the stakes, or even rewrite whole segments later — and in fact you might need to and this seems to be a normal part of the writing process! That said, I’ve found the Three-Egg Structure, combined with a very ¿porque no los dos? attitude towards Plantsing results in a hybrid model that helps me stay focused and gain many of the benefits of both drafting philosophies.
Happy plantsing! And I hope your story eggs hatch into a beautiful
bird novel that both lives up to your initial idea and takes flight in ways you don’t expect.