Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The plot treatment--an exercise in story structure

My wife recently shared with me a wonderful piece from Anne Lamott's book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  It illustrates the degree to which any good piece of fiction writing, whether novel, play, screenplay, or teleplay, needs to have a structural framework if it's going to lift off and soar.





Anne's short chapter called "Plot Treatment" is well worth a look (as is the rest of the book, filled with humor and bits of wisdom on the writer's life).  In this chapter she relates a story of her struggles with a novel she was slaving over for three years--a project that her editor kept giving back to her saying he was sorry but her 300-page manuscript still wasn't working.  Until, that is, she took his advice to go off somewhere and come up with a plot treatment.  In sheer frustration and not a little desperation she proceeded for the first time to take her story apart piece by piece and scene by scene, laying it all out in front of her.  It was then and only then that she found the structural framework for her story and was able to write what turned out to be her most successful book to date.

Here she is describing this in her own words:

"I sat down every day and wrote five hundred to a thousand words describing what was going on in each chapter.  I discussed who the characters were turning out to be, where they'd been, what they were up to, and why....and I figured out, over and over, point A, where the chapter began, and point B, where it ended, and what needed to happen to get my people from A to B.  And then how the B of the last chapter would lead organically into point A of the next chapter.  The book moved along like the alphabet, like a vivid and continuous dream."  

And when she sat down to write her next and final draft she says, "I knew exactly what I was doing.  I had a recipe.  The book came out the following autumn and has been the most successful of my novels."

My guess is that her next book did not take anywhere near three-plus years to write.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our next residency runs January 3-11, 2016 and we are now considering applications for starting the program in January.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), and a professional script consultant.

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