Alex Sokoloff and the art of the structure grid

When I wrote my first book, I really had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t plot – just let it flow “organically”. I didn’t understand the idea of a story structure – sure, I knew there was a beginning, middle and end, I knew about character arcs and I knew that that middle part was REALLY hard to write, but that was probably it.

I finished that book mid last year – thanks mainly to 50K in 30 days – and decided to let it sit until after conference before I started editing. Best decision ever!

At RWA’s Gold Coast conference, I attended Alex Sokoloff’s full day workshop, Screenwriting tips for Authors. She showed us how you can use a similar structure that screenwriters do for movie scripts, in writing a novel.

In a 2hr movie, there is a climactic scene every 30 mins. She talked about using the 4-act structure to structure your novel – with a climax at the end of each act. (She actually refers to them as Act 1, Act 2 Pt 1, Act 2 Pt 2 and Act 3 to fit into the traditional 3-act structure.) The climax of act 1 leaves your characters about to “cross the threshold” or “heed the call to action”, the climax of act 2 Pt 1 is the mid-point of the novel which completely changes the game, the climax of act 2 Pt 2 is the “black moment” and the climax of act 3 is, of course, the resolution. You can buy her book at Amazon – I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Prior to Alex’s workshop, my novel was a series of scenes that fell pretty much whenever I came up with the idea. After her workshop, I bought a corkboard, a pile of coloured post it notes and set to work.

blank story board

I divided the board up into the 4 acts, wrote down all of my scenes – one on each post-it note and tried to arrange it into the 3 act structure. It was easy enough to put the mid-point in, and the call to action, but it was immediately obvious that I had too many scenes in some sections, and not enough in others. A sure sign that my pacing was off. In the end I cut scenes, combined scenes, moved scenes and wrote a few new ones.

It was incredibly valuable to be able to see the story visually. To be able to move a scene around and see what impact it would have overall BEFORE I spent all that time rewriting it. The photo below was taken part way through the process. This novel has 2 protagonists, so the yellow and green indicate their POV. The blue was a couple of scenes in the hero’s POV. The pink and purple I think were notes to me with ideas of what was still needed. It took me several months to restructure my novel so that it worked.

IMAG0356

This time around I’m plotting BEFORE I finish the novel! Hopefully it will save me a lot of angst at the end 🙂 Now I’ve got 3 protagonists, so 3 main POVs to keep track of. I can know where a scene will fit in before I write it which will save me a lot of rewriting. I hope so, anyway!

storystuructureboard

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat has also been useful for me. He uses “beat sheets” to do a similar thing but I have to admit the visual nature of the board appeals to me.

Do you plot? What’s your process?

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22 thoughts on “Alex Sokoloff and the art of the structure grid

  1. Wow, Kez, this really brings it home to me how important it is to structure your novel. I’m a visual person too, so these ‘how-to’ photos is of great help. I’ve previously been using the highlighter idea together with scenes jotted down on cards and moving them about on the table. With my short stories I just have an idea and I write it. With everything else I’m a plotter, especially with my single title sci fi series. Otherwise I’d have no idea where I was heading! What size cork board did you use? Great blog post. Thank you

  2. I like the idea of having more structure and I’m learning there are MANY different ways to achieve that.
    I have another method that I picked up in – I think it was a Claytons Conference Workshop – called a Chapter Tracker. I’ve been using that for years.
    But I can see different uses this has as well.

  3. Alex is amazing. I have her blog in my bookmarks and I check it all the time. The wealth of archived craft posts on her blog is like WOW…
    I doubt very much I’ll ever get a pinboard-type thing going because I think I’m a pantster through and through and changing me would be like the leopard with her spots… but I still love the way Alex does it and how you’ve explained it here Kerrie.
    Cheers,
    Lily M

  4. Kez, you are SUCH a swot. But – could this be why I always get lost in the middle of my books and you didn’t? I’m hugely impressed. There’s a lot to be said for Alex Sokoloff’s system. And ‘Save the Cat’.

  5. Wow Kerrie. That is a massive job. It looks like it worked really well for you and definitely more preferable than a million rewrites. I’d love to compare the four act structure its three act counterpart.
    I use Scrivener to plot, just the cork board chapter summaries. It works in much the same way as your cork board.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for your comment, Stacey. I like the corkboard in Scrivener too but there’s something about being able to physically move the scenes around that appeals to me 🙂

  6. Kerrie, I need a cork board. I have a white board I mark out and write all over but with the cork board it is so much easier to move things around and I love the visual idea. Different colour sticky notes for different characters etc. Very good.

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