When You Reach “The End” but It Isn’t “Enough”
- HomeWhen You Reach “The End” but It Isn’t “Enough”
I am currently working on the sequel to a novel, but my original plan was to do a long series of novellas instead of a shorter series of novels. This was partly to have a robust self-publishing calendar, but also because I thought I’d pay homage to the 19th century serials because that’s the time period when it takes place. So, about a year ago, I sent out a few queries to publishers that specialize in shorter works before I took the self-publishing plunge. At that time, I had about 42,000 words. I heard back from two publishers who said they liked my premise and my writing, but I just didn’t have quite “enough.”
Sure, it was better than the dreaded “not the right fit,” because they both invited me to revise and resubmit. But it took me a while to figure out what they even meant and precisely how to integrate their feedback. As tempting as it can be to say someone “just doesn’t get it” and move on, these sorts of notes are exactly the feedback you should be looking for. I received this same “not enough” feedback at two different points while reaching the real ‘The End’ of No Rest for the Wicked, and even though the readers couldn’t pinpoint how to fix something, the fact that what I did left them wanting more (and not in a good way) meant I needed to take notice.
I’d like to share some of what I learned during this process to help you decide when you need more, less, or just something a little bit different. In this post, we’ll be looking at creating a satisfying reader experience through a well-constructed story arc. In the companion post, I’ll tell you all about adding a subplot. These tips can apply as you plan, as I am doing right now with the sequel, or during editing, as it happened with No Rest for the Wicked.
Crafting an Arc
Unfortunately, it turns out that having a great premise, likeable characters, and a fully-realized world isn’t enough for something to make that leap from being a collection of elements to being a story. Stringing a bunch of events together at random is much simpler than building something that leaves the reader emotionally satisfied with the results.
It’s worth mentioning here at the beginning that “arc” is somewhat misleading term. It conjures a vision of a single smooth curve, but it actually means “moving forward in a curving trajectory.” The “one curve to rule them all” idea doesn’t really work because there are three different elements of a story that can (and really should) be arcing throughout. These are the plot (actions/reactions to events), a character’s development (how they grow), and the reader’s experience (how the other two make the reader feel). These elements may run together sometimes or operate independently. If any of these elements are lacking, your story will fall flat. Enough won’t be “enough.”
The other reason the smooth curve idea doesn’t work is that you should really be aiming for a series of high points and low points rather than a single progressive curve (an arch). That’s where Blake Snyder’s tips from writing blockbuster movies come in handy.
Save the Cat!
I’ve read books and articles about the craft of writing, but the hands-down most helpful one that I have come across so far is called Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. One of those potential publishers I mentioned above actually recommended it to me, and it has made a huge difference in how I approach commercial fiction. Snyder wrote it for blossoming screenwriters, but there are also excellent tips that can be applied to commercial fiction. With the help of his years of experience, he came up with 15 distinct “beats” (think of them like pivotal moments that build on one another) that the most engaging stories have in common.
Though some people find the idea of following his “beat sheet” too much like a formula, I see it as more like guideposts. They can point you in a direction, but you get to decide how closely you stick to the road. You can use the beat sheet method to plot from the beginning, or do what I did and use it once you reach the editing stage.
By the Numbers
Even if you don’t already have an outline, I highly recommend you create one before trying to decide if your story needs a little something more. Beyond the visual reinforcement of your story’s arc, an outline will also make it much simpler to chart Snyder’s beats. His method uses percentages based on word count to help chart the course of the narrative. Most word processing applications have a way to count your words for you, so if you write on a computer it shouldn’t take you too long to get the information you need.
If you like to write your first draft out longhand or truly can’t stand the idea of creating an outline, this will be a little trickier, but you can use page count to get a rough idea of 10% of the way through your story vs. 25%, etc. If you want your numbers to be more concrete, try counting the number of words you have on three pages and find the average.
The number of pages in a published book will depend on the font and the format (5″x8″ vs. 4″x6″, for instance.) However, we’ll be talking about manuscript (MS) pages today. Typically, unpublished manuscripts are double-spaced and printed on 8.5″x11″ paper with reasonable margins. (Or the slightly taller but narrower A4 in Europe.) This gives you an average of range of about 250-275 words per MS page.
Constructing an Outline or Reverse-Outline
Outlines can take many different shapes, and you may need to try more than one method, even within the same project. For instance, I always have a spreadsheet, but sometimes I also go back and forth between it and a set of index cards that follow a combination of Snyder’s beats and the structure laid out in Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. Others may use index cards for each scene. You may need to tweak my recommendations and Snyder’s method in order to fit your own working style, but even going through that process can prove invaluable to getting your thoughts in order.
What are Snyder’s Beats and Why Should you Use Them?
You’re probably familiar with the term “beats” as it pertains to music, and in many ways, Snyder’s beats act as the guiding rhythm for the story. In Save the Cat!, he uses number of pages to talk about story arc because unlike novels, screenplays are quite similar in length. Jami Gold has several spreadsheets on her website that use Snyder’s beat sheet as well as other story engineering principles. The best part is the formulas are already in there, all you have to do is set your word count goal. I use her tools in conjunction with my outline to figure out and track where the beats should fall. The page numbers given in this tool will be most accurate if you do not have any extra space at your chapter breaks.
You will notice that some of these beats will actually overlap, and that is where the individual creator has wiggle room. Some of the placements are harder and faster than others as well. You can mess around a little, but if your beat comes a long time after the place where Snyder suggests, chances are greater that you have added unnecessary “fluff.” If they come way earlier, you may not be giving yourself room to develop them, and those are your best opportunities to add more content to round your story out.
He divides stories into three Acts, but you may be surprised to see they are not three equally weighted sections. Act I is only the first 25% and Act 3 is the last 25%, but Act 2 is actually half the story (and the part that will have the most ups and downs). Because we are thinking about the three different types of arcs, I have also labeled each beat with the arcs that are most closely related.
1. Opening Image – First few pages of Actual Chapter 1 (Character arc)
This is first thing your reader sees. These first few pages aren’t just about drawing readers into the events of your story. Oftentimes, the opening image has more to do with characterization than the overarching plot. Protagonists are almost always outsiders; their outsider status is exactly what gives them the unique insight to save the day in the end. The opening image is a way to establish this status through either a State of Perfection (SOP) where the protagonist is blissful or a State of Imperfection (SOI) that highlights their struggles. And if you start with an SOP, you’ve got to be ready to strip it away early on.
Books have more of a chance to be expansive here than movies do, and may begin with a prologue that gives important background information or insight from someone else rather than introducing the main character right away. If you feel that one is necessary for your story, it should count just the same as the first “real” chapter in terms of word count and where the theme comes in, but those first pages are not the Opening image when it comes to Snyder’s beats and how it relates to the Final Image. For the sake of the story’s character arc, the Opening Image relates directly to the experience of the protagonist.
For instance, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first chapter revolves around Vernon Dursley and takes place a decade before Harry’s story really begins. It isn’t called a prologue, but functions as one. When it comes to Snyder’s beats, the actual Opening Image is the beginning of Chapter 2 when Aunt Petunia bangs on the cupboard door and screeches at Harry to get up and make breakfast for the family. The Final Image, Harry on the train platform surrounded by friends, is a reversal of his isolation and lack of appreciation in the Opening Image.
2. Theme Stated ~5% (Plot arc)
This is one of those beats that is more important to screenplays than novels, but it is worth taking a moment to talk about. I know plenty of people who rebel against the idea that their book needs a theme, because they equate it to a lesson or moral. These are not necessarily the same thing, though they are also not mutually exclusive.
For example, a moral is “listen to your parents.” A theme is “Do adults really know what they are talking about?” The answer may be yes, but it could also be a resounding no. “Believe in yourself and you’ll achieve great things” is a lesson. “Man vs. nature” is a theme. The two can come together in the course of your plot arc, but they are not exactly the same. “Be careful what you wish for” is a popular theme in fiction that also serves as a lesson. The more different ways you can explore your theme within a single work, the better.
Snyder says that in a movie, the theme should be worked into the dialog somehow, but it doesn’t have to be a word for word statement of the theme, just a reference to it. It’s especially effective if a secondary character poses a question or says something to the protagonist involving the theme.
In both the book and the film The Hunger Games, the theme comes from a conversation with Gale. He entreats Katniss, “We could do it, you know. Take off, live in the woods. It’s what we do anyway.” Her response is that they wouldn’t survive. The central theme, as later reinforced by Peeta, is this question of living vs. just surviving. In a book with a prologue, the theme can be addressed by secondary characters whether or not they have contact with the protagonist.
3. Setup ~1-9% (Both Character and Plot Arc)
Do not be fooled. “Setup” here does NOT mean you have to lay out all of the backstory and world-building up front. Please, PLEASE don’t do that. Readers don’t need to know everything, but they do need to be given at least a glimpse at things that are or will become important. If you include a prologue, this means you have less space to devote to setting up the actual world of your protagonist, but you will be able to do some extra world-building, so keep this in mind when you are deciding whether or not to have one.
What Setup does mean is that you should at least hint at the world and mention characters, objects, or places that become important later. Give your characters tics, foibles, and interests at this point. If your protagonist is going to save the day with magical powers, you must include something the lets the reader know magic is a possibility, even if it is not understood by the protagonist at the time. If a love interest’s allergic reaction to a beloved pet is going to be an obstacle later, introduce the pet or at least the desire for one early. It won’t always be possible to work these details in here at the beginning, but the more you can do, the easier it will be to fold them into later events. If you reach the next beat sooner than advised, take a look at your setup and see if there are chances to add more characterization or world-building.
4. Catalyst ~10-11% (Plot Arc)
Unlike stating the theme, the use and placement of the catalyst is vital to your story’s plot arc. Snyder describes this step as “the life-changing event that knocks down the house of cards.” This is the first point of no return for your protagonist (even if they don’t know it yet). It can be positive or negative, but it must create a situation that requires a reaction.
If your catalyst comes too far after this point, you’ve got too much setup without enough actually happening. If it comes much earlier than this, you haven’t lain enough groundwork for the reader to care about that house of cards. This is when Harry gets his Hogwarts letter, when Katniss volunteers as tribute, and when a beach community decides to keep the shores open even though there’s a threat of shark attack. So, if you are told there isn’t “enough,” you may want to look at the previous pages to see if you gave the reader time to get to know your character in order to invest in them.
5. Debate 11-22% (Primarily Character Arc but also Reader Experience)
If you are familiar with “the hero’s journey,” this would be “the refusal of the call to adventure.” It doesn’t literally mean that your character should spent thousands of words agonizing over a decision, but after the catalyst knocks down the cards, the character has to spend some time working out if it is possible to set them back up, or if they even want to try. The answer is probably “no,” or at least “not unless I do X,” but they have to arrive at that conclusion through a process. The important thing is that a question is posed and the character must attempt to answer it. This can definitely go beyond “Should I or shouldn’t I?”
Snyder uses Legally Blonde as an example. The main character’s relationship falls apart as the catalyst, and she immediately decides to go to Harvard to try to win her boyfriend back. In her case, the debate section isn’t “what do I do next?” but “how will I get accepted to such a prestigious school?” For Katniss, once she volunteers she can’t back out, but she does have to decide how far she is willing to go to survive. Her debate is focused on her relationships with Peeta and Hamish, and realizing she actually can’t hope to win if she doesn’t get some help from other people. Frodo and his fellow Hobbits have made it to the elves, but the decision about what to do with the ring hasn’t been made. In Jaws, the sheriff is on high alert during this section but the shark still kills again.
Once the protagonist becomes fully committed, the debate is over. This is the second point of no return. Somehow, the protagonist must choose to move the action along. I’m going to say it again. The protagonist must make a choice that moves the plot forward. I can’t tell you the number of groan-worthy stories I have come across where the main character is simply dragged around the whole time, reacting rather than acting. By empowering your protagonist through a choice now, it makes the consequences of that choice so much more powerful later.
Watch out for the Destiny Trap
A character simply accepting they are the “chosen one” is not that same as making a choice. If you are telling this type of story, give your character a “because” that is personal rather than simple “or the world will end.” The personalized stakes will make the character much more compelling because when you get down to it, you’d hope everyone would be decent enough to save the world if they were the only ones who could do it. Instead, adding in some self-centered motivation actually makes the character more interesting and dynamic. Things like accepting that monsters exist because it is the only way to save my mother (Mortal Instruments) or agreeing to be the Mockingjay because of a personal hatred of President Snow gives your character a sharper, more interesting edge.
6. Break Into Act II ~25% (Plot Arc and Reader Experience)
Snyder describes this point in the story as “a strong and definite change of playing field” and advises writers to enter this phase with a bang, not a whimper. The key here is change, and change creates excitement for the reader. The protagonist enters the fantasy world, gets into a submarine to look for the treasure, or moves into the dorms. This is when the true journey should begin in a quest narrative, or at least become much more complicated by reaching an important destination.
For Katniss, this is when she reaches the capitol and begins training. She gets a taste of the good life on the train, but it isn’t until she gets in front of the crowd and the camera that she realizes how fundamentally her life has changed.
7. B-Story (no later than) 27% and Continues to The End (All Three)
I recently coordinated a collaborative novel called Army of Brass. It had four distinct but intertwined storylines to juggle. You don’t need to have a plot this complex to write a good book, but the best stories do have what Snyder calls the B-Story. This could be the romantic subplot or the “buddy movie” section where characters start to appreciate what they each have to offer. In stories with big groups, this is when they start to gel and become a unit rather than a bunch of individuals. If your character befriends a wild animal or adopts a recalcitrant cat, trust starts to be built.
But this doesn’t mean everything should suddenly click right away. This is the beginning of the B-story, and it can get off to a rocky start sometimes. This added element and relationship can also challenge the protagonist’s core beliefs and worldview. The result of the B-story is that the protagonist becomes a better, fuller version of themselves as a consequence of some sort of relationship. Ideally, this transformation will also correspond to the theme of the story and act as the vehicle for the character’s change.
8. Fun and Games (AKA the Promise of the Premise) ~27%-49% (Primarily The Reader’s Experience but can Serve the Other Two as Well)
If you’re book were a movie, this would be the section that would end up in the trailer. This is a huge chunk of the story where Snyder doesn’t even try to give too much guidance because it will be wholly unique. This is a great time to bring on your best beasties, your coolest settings, and challenges that only your characters would face in your fictional world. The point is that this part should delight your readers and make them happy they are investing the time in the story. If they don’t get this “up”, any “down” you reach at the midpoint won’t make as big of an impact. So let your hair down and have a good time!
9. Midpoint 50% (All Three)
Just like our “Break into Act II” beat, the Midpoint is time of change and choice. The protagonist must actively decide to take an action that leads to consequences. And they can’t be little consequences because the fun is now over.
Your midpoint should either be an extreme high or an extreme low for your protagonist, but in both cases, this state is somewhat of a lie. For instance, the characters could win a battle, only to find out it was all a distraction and the real threat is miles away (false peak). Or this could be a time when someone got cocky and gets knocked down a peg or two, but the reader has faith they will rise again (false collapse). Either way, the event that occurs smack dab in the middle needs to both signify a change and raise the stakes.
This is often when a beloved companion is kidnapped (things get personal) or the team wins the local championship (yay!) only to face a much higher calibre of opponent (scary!). This isn’t to say that the exact moment of change has to occur in that tiny sliver of 50%-51%, but something must happen in the middle that shocks the character (and the reader) into a new mindset.
As an interesting side note, this is the one beat where the book The Hunger Games and the movie differ. For the film, the exact middle is when Katniss is in her tube and entering the arena. In the book, the first part of the Games is actually part of the Fun and Games section. Her big moment at the midpoint is when Peeta saves her and she realizes he may have real feelings for her. In both cases, these moments completely work as midpoints because the stakes are certainly raised. In one case, she is in true physical danger. In the other, her relationship stakes get raised. However, the consequence is that Katniss’s time in the arena and her relationship with Rue are abridged in the film. Depending on your goals, you may have to make this same sort of decision as you plan or edit your novel.
10. Bad Guys Close In (Inner Demons Rear Their Heads) ~51%-67% (Plot Arc)
Uh-oh, things just got real. Right after the stakes are raised, the protagonist has realize they may not be able to win. This one-two punch should make your reader double down emotionally and carry them to the end of the book. The antagonistic forces get a chance to regroup or move forward with their dastardly plan if the protagonist failed at the midpoint. Often, the heroes must retreat and may have to separate. They’ll spend the rest of this section getting back to safety, bandaging the wounded, and blaming each other for their failure. The “bad guys” don’t have to be present during this whole section, just their influence. Or, this can be a time when a character’s negative character traits come in to play. If you’ve got someone who is stubborn, closed off, prone to angry outbursts, or any other ugly foible, this is when it should become a problem.
11/12. All is Lost ~68% and Dark Moment ~68%-76% (Character Arc and Reader Experience)
If things got real in the last section, this is where things get real bad. Usually, if there is a death, especially of a mentor, this is where it happens. (Obi Wan Kenobi, anyone?) If we are talking about our sports team, they suffer an important loss. In a romance, the couple are definitely not on speaking terms and they are both gutted about it. If you’ve got an ensemble, this is where they argue and someone might simply walk away. The characters are in pain, and if you did it right, your reader should be, too.
There doesn’t need to be any actual death, but Snyder advocates giving a reader a “whiff of death” here. A dead flower in a vase, a treasured possession destroyed, a house burned down – these are all things that show loss and can drive a reader to tears. This is also time for figurative deaths. In order for a character to move on from this stage and be triumphant at the end, they will often have to “kill” an old way of thinking and be “reborn” as something new.
13. Break into Act III ~76%
This is another time to make a choice. It can be to stand and fight, to put differences aside, or to win back the love of their life. They have to, otherwise the tragedy they have just faced means nothing. This is the last chance for the characters to gain new information and allies. Your readers will love it if your B-story somehow informs this choice and reinforces the bonds that were formed earlier.
14. Finale ~77%-97%
If you thought the finale was just the last big battle, think again. A whopping 20% of the story is the finale according the Snyder. This is the part of the story when your heroes must “dispatch all bad guys in ascending order.” Think of it like a video game. You never start with the biggest baddest “boss,” you have to mow through some lackeys first. If you reach the finale and realize you’ve only got one battle to fight, consider re-evaluating your antagonist and whether or not they need allies or support staff.
This doesn’t mean actual literal fighting, though. If your characters are trying to save a wetland from developers, this is when they could do something to get key people on the opposing side to see the light. This could be getting ready for the career-changing presentation to the board of directors at a software company. There could be a series of puzzles to solve that can only be bested by teamwork like in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Or it might mean putting together a big romantic gesture.
15. Final Image – Last Chapter/Epilogue
This parting shot should relate in some way to the Opening Image, unless you opened with a prologue. If your protagonist started out alone but unhappy, they should be surrounded by friends. If they were alone but content, put them in a hammock enjoying a quiet summer afternoon. If they were surrounded by a loving family, show them back in their loving embrace or spending time with the new family they forged along the way. Do not forget this beat! Your readers deserve a feeling of closure a little bit of hope to send them on their way (and hopefully straight out to buy the sequel).
How Did I Apply Snyder’s Beats to No Rest for the Wicked?
When I charted my 42,000-word novella according to the beat sheet, it didn’t fit. It started out all right, but once I got past the Bad Guys Move In, things fell apart. In my case, these were quite literal bad guys in the form of a group of bandits. The problem came when my main character, Vi, took it all in stride. She didn’t feel that all was lost at all, only that she had to solve the problem somehow. Vi not only had a plan, but a backup plan. My stakes weren’t high enough to get her nervous. Even worse, I didn’t let the reader in on the backup plan. This robbed them of a chance to build anticipation. Her plan fell apart, but then she deftly dispatched the bad guys in a few paragraphs. To the reader, the new a scheme that came out of left field. The novella ended with her and her companions leaving on the journey that will carry them through the series.
I could see then how there wasn’t enough story to make the arcs complete. My character didn’t go through much in the way of turmoil. She was a little too slick, a little too relaxed. Her cool head and past experiences were central to her as a character, but I robbed the reader of enjoying any type of emotional roller coaster.
First off, I needed to make the dispatching of the bandits unfold differently. The reader needed to see Vi have the idea for the backup plan and take steps to make it happen at the moment the first plan didn’t work out. Then, I needed it to stretch it out so the reader got a chance to experience the rush and excitement of the ensuing bar fight. I realized at this point in the revision that I was extremely intimidated by the idea of writing an action scene, and that hang up hurt the way the story had unfolded. So I sucked it, faced my fear, and gave the reader something that stretched over three chapters rather than three paragraphs. And it was much better than what I originally had.
Replotting the Beats
One of the publishers said she thought I should expand the story into a novel instead. I was part way in to writing what I thought of as novella #2, so I charted these same events of No Rest for the Wicked as if the book was going to be twice as long with novella #2 acting as everything in the second half. To my delight, things played out in a whole new and much more effective way. I realized then that in my first attempt I had essentially written everything up to the midpoint of a novel rather than creating a fully arcing novella. I needed more space to complicate the story and get the stakes up to life or death in order to rattle my protagonist.
The next stage was to get these two stories that I had been thinking of as standing alone into one coherent whole. But that’s a story for the companion article coming on Thursday. So tune in again for more tips on what to do when enough isn’t quite enough.
Phoebe Darqueling is a developmental editor and novelist who loves to hone her craft and help others reach their full potential as storytellers. For more information on using Save the Cat! as an editing tool, check out the article on her author page about how she used it for Army of Brass, a Steampunk fantasy novel written by 21 international authors.
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