I decided to shamelessly pirate someone else's work.
I took Tolkien's Lord of the Rings as my model, of course, as being the closest plot structure to what I had in mind. I crunched it through the three-act plot structure KM Weiland uses and teaches...and what I discovered blew my mind.
It also solved all my plotting woes.
The Doorstopper project is something I've been working on fairly intensely since the beginning of July. It's an ambitious project, I know:
- It's going to cover a 200-year timespan.
- It's going to feature three plots woven together.
- It's going to be heavily woven into real-world history which must all be researched and evaluated.
- I anticipate it running to around 300,000-400,000 words.
Part of the problem with working with something of this scope is the sheer amount of choices that must be made. I like having my options limited; now suddenly I could go in any one of a thousand directions. How to use this wealth of raw material to structure three compelling plots, then weave them into one overarching plot?
I began researching plot structure, desperate for ideas. Though I commonly try to avoid writing advice, I read KM Weiland's Plot Structure blog series, in which she sets up story structure like this:
Hook----------------0%According to this, a plot is structured in three acts, of which the first lasts for approximately 25% of the wordcount. A plot point, defined as an irrevocable turning-point, then leads into the second act, which runs for approximately 50% of the book and features another plot point midway through. After this, a final plot point leads into a climactic third act, finishing with a resolution.
------First Plot Point----------------25%
Second Act A
Second Act B
------Third Plot Point----------------75%
At first, this scheme only confused me. If a Midpoint is supposed to happen in each of my three plotlines, how do I deliver three Midpoints in the middle of my novel? One right after another? Wouldn't that upset the pacing of the novel? Or do I space them out? Is it OK if a midpoint occurs significantly earlier or significantly later than the 50% mark?
Finally I read a blog post from a different author suggesting that novelists wanting to tackle complex plots should start out by analysing the plot of a book which does something similar to their own project. Unfortunately, I haven't read a lot of multi-stranded megabooks. So I decided to analyse The Lord of the Rings, as being the closest thing to what I had in mind. Today I'm going to focus on the overall plot of the book.
Spoilers ahead! If you haven't already read the book, what are you waiting for?
(Note: I'm doing all this from memory, and I haven't read the book for about 9 years. So I might have broken this down wrong. Would love to hear other plotters' thoughts on this!)
Hook: The Shadow of the Past: Bilbo's Ring is the Dark Lord's. And he wants it back.
First Act: Book 1: The journey to Rivendell.
First Plot Point: "I will take the Ring to Mordor, though I do not know the way."
Second Act A: Book 2: The journey down the Anduin.
Midpoint: The Breaking of the Fellowship
Second Act B: Book 3: War against Isengard/Book 4: Journey to Cirith Ungol.
Third Plot Point: Sauron besieges Minas Tirith/Frodo and Sam enter Mordor
Climax: The Black Gate Opens/Mount Doom
Resolution: The Field of Cormallen ff.
The first thing that blew me away about LOTR's plot structure was the fact that the midpoint of the plot actually occurs not in the middle of The Two Towers, where we'd expect it, but at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, just over a third of the way into the wordcount. Now Tolkien does give us a major plot point at the midway point: Sauron marches on Gondor, as revealed when Pippin looks into the palantir after the fall of Isengard. However, though the invasion has a huge impact on the plot, it primarily affects the Gandalf/Aragorn plotline in Rohan and Gondor. While it makes Frodo and Sam's mission more urgent, it doesn't complicate that mission. The true Midpoint, the big game-changer, the irrevocable moment, happens when the Fellowship breaks. Even Gandalf comes back from the dead, but the Fellowship never gets unbroken.
So why does the Midpoint occur so early on? Well, after the Midpoint, we have two plotlines to follow. When taken in isolation, each plotline balances out the first "half" of the book. Naturally, it takes twice as long to follow both plots. And Tolkien feels no obligation to condense the parallel second halves of his plot to match the first half.
Nor does he feel the obligation to switch back and forth between viewpoints with every chapter, or even every other chapter. Instead, Tolkien alternates between plotlines in much bigger chunks, spending a Book on one, then a Book on the other. In addition, he makes sure to give each of his Books a plot structure of its own. Telling the story in alternating Books rather than alternating chapters allows those plot structures to emerge, and provides a very natural rising and falling rhythm throughout the book. Most writers today, even of very big books, try to eliminate quiet spots in the narrative by switching viewpoints every chapter or so. However, a big part of LOTR's epic scope and feel is that Tolkien isn't scared to slow his rhythm down a bit to match the scope of the book.
One side effect of this is that Tolkien's big plot points, especially in the second half of the plot, are given plenty of room to breathe. The Third Plot Point in the Gandalf/Aragorn plot occurs long before the Third Plot Point in the Frodo/Sam plot; the catastrophe at the climax of the Gandalf/Aragorn plot in "The Black Gate Opens" is left hanging several chapters until "Mount Doom" partway through the next Book. Tolkien isn't afraid to back off a bit, to release tension, to let the high points in the plot make more of a statement. And because this is a hefty epic and not light airport reading, the long staggers work.
By the same token, Tolkien's slower rhythm means that he builds tension as slowly as he releases it. He spends plenty of time on thrilling battles like Helm's Deep and the Pelennor Fields. And it's this masterful balance between recovery time and tension-building that gives the book its truly epic feel. I've often noted that the legendarily lengthy resolution, which takes up a good half of the last book, is one we deeply need. We need to be returned gently from the staggering grandeur of this story, not shot out of it all in a heap. We need to wind down.
But Tolkien is just as careful in winding us up to and down from smaller climaxes throughout the book. We move slowly before the Pelennor Fields, riding through Rohan to the Paths of the Dead. Then we stop after the Pelennor Fields to recuperate in the Houses of Healing. Tolkien doesn't rush us. But he never, not once, not ever, lowers the stakes--and that's how he keeps us reading.
Next week, I'm going to go on and analyse the plot structures of the six smaller books into which The Lord of the Rings is divided. It was this analysis that really blew my mind and helped resolve a ton of my plotting woes. Stay tuned!