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by Michael Moreci
A strange thing happened when I sat down to write my first novel for St. Martin’s Press.
I had to write a novel.
Okay—I know that sounds like a “Yeah, no sh*t” moment, but hear me out. See, I hadn’t written much prose—aside from a short story here and there—in years. I had written prose before; I even had an unpublished novel—mercifully unpublished, let me tell you—sitting in a box somewhere in my basement. But for the longest time, I’d mainly been writing comics, and that meant I had to shake off a lot of rust to switch back to prose. And I mean a lot. In comics, it’s almost like you’re just writing a blueprint for your artist to follow. Don’t get me wrong, comic scripts have a lot complexities and creative demands, but when it comes down to the deployment of language, your primary job as a writer is to convey to the artist what’s supposed to be on the page. Or at least an approximation of what’s supposed to be on the page. Basically, no one’s asking you to be Nabokov. You’re delivering instructions.
I was scared. I’d been writing comics for so long (I still do, in fact), and I’d learned so many shortcuts and shorthand ways of conveying essential information to artists that it was almost as if I was writing code; my scripts were like this background function, unseen and almost unintelligible compared to what people saw on a completed comic page. In books—there are no shortcuts. No shorthand tricks I could fall back on. I had no artist painting the picture of what I wanted to convey. It was just my words and my words alone.
But there’s hope. As much as I fretted about language and how I’d, I don’t know, adequately describe a tree without the comfort of simply telling an artist, “Draw a spruce,” I held fast to one simple truth:
All stories are the same.
Comics, movies, novels, whatever—they all follow a simple structure. Conveniently, it’s called the three-act structure, and it is baked into every story we know.
(Well, okay—maybe not every story. But knowing the three-act structure is essential to storytelling, and even stories that defy the convention are aware of their deviation. You have to know the rules to break the rules.)
With that in mind, I could get to the task of writing a novel, and I learned some valuable lessons in the process.
Know and follow the structure
There are many resources—particularly screenwriting books, but there’s also a great Writer’s Digest tutorial on the subject—that can teach you everything you need to know about the three-act structure. Essentially, it goes like this: In the first act, you’re giving readers the lay of the land. Who are these characters? What do they do? What’s their world like? And then, it all goes wrong as everything we’ve learned is thrust into peril. This is the conflict, and the characters have to go forth and find a way to fix things. In the second act, you enrich everything. The characters, the world, the problem. The conflict should intensify, and it should—ideally—challenge the characters in a profound and personal way. By the end of this act, the characters should be stymied in their efforts and hit their lowest point. But then they bounce back, and this is what act three is all about. The third act is resolution. The conflict is resolved, and the characters discover a new sense of who they are and how their world has changed.
My best advice to any writer is to study and learn how this structure works. What you’ll find is that even if you don’t know it, you do. You’ve seen it everywhere, and it’s subconsciously etched on your creative writing brain whether you know it or not. A terrific way to practice is to watch your favorite movie and, while you’re watching, take out a notebook and write out every single scene. Then go back and break those scenes into the three acts. Do it a few times with different movies, and you’ll begin to see how all these stories are more or less adhering to the same tempo.
Nail Your Character Beats
Weaved within the underlying structure of stories is the underlying structure of characters. The best characters go on emotional journeys throughout the story; they start at one place, then they end up somewhere else by the end. Going back to the first point, when I wrote BLACK STAR RENEGADES, the movie I went back to again and again was Guardians of the Galaxy. Let me tell you—if we’re talking about story structure and character beats, that movie is pristine. Let’s look at the main character, Starlord. In the beginning of the movie, his mom is dying of cancer, and as he watches her go—he’s a young at this point—she asks him to take his hand. He refuses, and he spends the rest of his life an outcast (or outlaw, he’d tell you). Since the moment his mom died, he was put on a solo path, and that’s reinforced in specific beats throughout the movie. But at the end, Starlord changes. In order for him to survive and to prevent a weapon from destroying an entire civilization, he needs the help of his friends—he needs to take their hand. The exact thing he rejected in the first scene comes full circle by the end. It’s perfect and totally earned. So, as story has a structure, so do characters. Learn how your favorite characters’ journeys take place and try to understand how they function.
Make Problems, Solve Problems
In BLACK STAR RENEGADES, one of the biggest issues I encountered were these deserts where nothing was happening. Characters were thinking about stuff. They were maybe moving from one place to another. But there was no fundamental problem for them to solve, no conflict. Now, your book is going to have the big capital-C Conflict. The overarching thing that must be defeated. But you also need to be consistently creating problems for your characters to solve, and—surprise—those problems work directly in concert with the three-act structure. Think about Star Wars (as I often do). Now, in the three-act structure, at the end of act two, the main character—the protagonist—hits his or her lowest point. For Luke, it’s when Obi-Wan dies. Now, think of all the small problems Luke had to overcome to get to that point: his encounter with the Tusken Raiders, escaping Tatooine, rescuing Princess Leia, overcoming and fleeing the trash compactor. Through each victory—through each problem solved—Luke is growing. He’s not thinking about becoming a Jedi, he’s actually taking the steps (and, mind you, they’re not all directly related to the antagonist)—and those steps keep the story going. They prevent the momentum from becoming static, which is the last thing you want. Keep giving your characters problems to overcome—make them unique, make them fun and clever—and you’ll find it much easier to keep the story crisp and your characters evolving along the way.
The opening line of BLACK STAR RENEGADES is “Cade ran.” I tried to write that probably a hundred different ways. “Cade dashed through the blah blah,” “With each quickening step he took, Cade yadda yadda.” Look, there’s a time for language that tickles that specific part of the brain that is turned on by the artful manipulation of language, and I’ll never diminish how satisfying that can be. But there’s also a time where you just come out and say what you want to say. Cade was being chased. So Cade ran. And, to be honest, the closer I followed the principles of the three-act structure and worked to hit the character beats within, the crisper my writing became. I didn’t meander, I didn’t expend much time spinning my wheels on what came next because I knew exactly what was destined to follow with each passing story beat. While my writing, admittedly, could stand to be a little more sophisticated, I was always able to clearly convey what was happening—in the story, with the characters, even with the themes I was trying to weave throughout. Clarity in story = clarity of writing.
The important thing to take away is that, sometimes, you have to remember that there is a structure to storytelling. We often find ourselves mystified by the creative process (and boy is there a lot to be mystified by), but there are rules and principles that exist and can see you though from beginning to end. You can follow them, you can break them; but either way, knowing they’re there and how they function can give you the direction and confidence you need to tell your story—in whichever medium you choose.
Michael Moreci is the author of the sci-fi novel BLACK STAR RENEGADES (January 2, 2018; St. Martin’s Press). Additionally, he's a bestselling comics writer who's written Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, and other well-known characters. His original series, Roche Limit, has been called "the sci-fi comic you need to read" by the Nerdist and io9 and "one of the 50 best sci-fi comics of all time" by Paste magazine. Moreci is also a regular contributor to StarWars.com and Tor.com. You can visit him at www.michaelpmoreci.com.