176: How to Harness the Difference between Plot and Story with Steve Alcorn
If you’ve ever been to a theme park like Disney World, chances are you’ve seen Steve Alcorn’s work. Steve is the CEO of Alcorn McBride, a company that designs products used in nearly all the world’s theme parks.
He’s also the author of many books. He’s written historical fiction, romance, and young adult novels. He’s also written several nonfiction books, including, Build a Better Mouse, Theme Park Design, and How to Fix Your Novel.
Steve fell into the field of theme park engineering because his wife always wanted to be a Disney Imagineer. Steve and his wife were in engineering school together, and when she graduated, she applied for exactly one job and got it. She became a Disney Imagineer and began working on the preliminary designs for Epcot Center.
When it became clear that she was going to be in Florida for quite some time working on the installation of Epcot Center, Steve followed her into that industry and worked on the American Adventure at Epcot.
After he was done working on American Adventure, Steve started a company that makes the types of things he wished he had when designing American Adventure. When he was working on that attraction, Steve and his team had to design everything from scratch.
Alcorn and McBride makes products that theme parks can buy off the shelf to help them design and build their rides. If you’ve been to any of the Disney parks or Universal Studios, you’ve likely experienced some of Steve’s work. His products work behind the scenes to make sure the synchronized audio and video are running smoothly.
Theme park design is a really fun field to be in because you get the inside scoop on attractions way before they open, and you get to help solve really sticky technical problems.
Steve has always been interested in writing, and he’s always been interested in creative enterprises. That’s one of the reasons he became an engineer in a creative field. Steve is also a sculptor.
In this interview, we talk about the importance of having a plan for your novel. We also talk about how to plan your novel, the three-act structure, and the scene/sequel method of building a novel. This is a great interview packed with information about how to think about planning your novel.
How the Writing Academy Came to Be
Steve decided to write his first novel when his daughter was little. They enjoyed reading together and he wanted to write something special for her.
His first novel was based on his experiences growing up in a summer camp near Sequoia National Park. That turned into the novel A Matter of Justice. The novel ended up having a protagonist a lot like his daughter at the time.
Through that process, and when researching a subsequent novel about the St. Francis dam, Steve met the screenwriter Doran William Cannon. Doran wrote for a lot of popular hits in the 1980s, including Dynasty and parts of The Godfather films.
Steve and Doran really hit it off. Doran had an online class called Write Like a Pro and he suggested that Steve do a course on writing mysteries, because he wasn’t writing mysteries and didn’t have a class on it.
So Steve developed a class on writing mysteries. In 2000, he teamed up with Doran to launch the online writing school Writing Academy. They have classes in novel writing, nonfiction writing, and writing your own memoir, among others. Steve has taught more than 30,000 aspiring writers how to structure their novels. In his house, he has an entire library filled with the signed novels of his students.
Why Steve Decided to Teach Writing
Steve has always wanted to help people. When he started his company, Alcorn and McCabe, he helped a lot of his clients use the products he created to build their theme park attractions. As the business grew, Steve assembled a large, competent engineering team around him, and they all encouraged him to go find something else to do with his time.
He always loved writing, and he’s read just about every book there is on the craft.
When he came across Doran’s work, it really connected with him. He became an evangelist for Doran’s teachings. They did several seminars together. At one point, Doran even said that Steve understood his techniques better than he did.
The Difference between Plot and Story
The first thing that writers need to understand is the distinction between plot and story. If you read a book that doesn’t feel quite right, it’s probably because the writer didn’t understand the distinction between story and plot.
The plot consists of the events of the story. It’s everything that happens external to the viewpoint character.
When we talk about story, we’re talking about everything that happens inside the protagonist’s head. We’re talking about the protagonist’s emotional journey.
Those two things are very distinct.
Even if you’re working on a screenplay or television production, you need both elements. Even though the camera is an inherently visual medium and is showing what is happening—the plot—the actor is portraying the emotional journey of the character, the story.
If you’re a screenwriter, you can often use the dialogue to help you tell story. If you’re a novelist, you have it easy because you can dive right into the mind of the protagonist. You can really delve into that character’s thoughts and express their emotions.
Every novel has to pay equal attention to the plot (the external events of the novel) and the story (the emotional journey of the protagonist through the novel).
You should set up your novel so that it is composed of a plot event (action) followed by an internal emotional reaction that leads to another plot event.
Good novels are made up of an action/reaction pattern.
How to Structure a Character’s Reaction
A proper reaction has three parts:
- The point-of-view character feels something about what just happened.
- Then they think about what just happened and their feelings about it.
- Then they make a decision about what to do next and trigger the next plot event.
“A lot of novelists—and action novelists are a prime example of this—sort of leave out that story part, and so when you read these really exciting bang-up stories [with] cops and robbers, chases, dinosaurs, and so on. But you get into this sort of fatigue after a while if you never get to know the characters.”
– Steve Alcorn
You also want to avoid having too much story and not enough plot. This happens most often in romance novels where the reader is stuck inside the protagonist’s head with no plot events to move the story forward.
“You want to have the balance between the physical and the emotional. That’s the core of successful novel writing.”
– Steve Alcorn
Your Protagonist Must Change
“Novels are about a character changing. They’re not just arbitrary collections of random things happening.”
– Steve Alcorn
A story is about a protagonist who has a flaw. They have to work against their flaw and overcome it to solve a problem. If you figure out what your character’s flaw is before you start writing your novel, actually writing it becomes a much easier exercise.
There are only a handful of commonly used flaws that protagonists have in novels.
The most commonly used flaw for a protagonist is lack of self-confidence.
If you think about most movies, they are almost invariably about the protagonist overcoming a lack of self-confidence to solve a problem that has arisen.
That makes it sound like every story in the world would be the same. The truth is, it’s the plot details that make every story unique and different.
The Three-Act Structure
You can use the classic three-act structure to help keep your plot moving and allow you room to explore your story and your character’s flaws.
The First Act
In the first act, the protagonist is flawed and they don’t know it. The first turning point is when something happens that shows them what their flaw is. At the first act turning point, the audience sees the protagonist being overcome by their flaw.
The Second Act
The second act is the longest act of any story. It’s a big, long struggle because the protagonist hasn’t yet changed. They’re fighting against their flaw.
At the end of this act, the protagonist realizes their flaw, and they realize they need to change. Now that the character realizes they need to do something differently, they can make a plan to change and solve their problem.
Act Three is usually the shortest. It’s also the most action-packed because this is when the character puts into motion their plan to change and solve their problem.
The three-act structure is universal to all types of stories. It’s what needs to be there for a story to be exciting and satisfying.
Star Wars Episode IV, A New Hope: A Case Study
Star Wars is the story of Luke Skywalker. The theme of that movie is about the Force and believing in yourself.
Luke Skywalker lives on Tatooine, a desert planet on the outskirts of the galaxy. Because we’re in a movie, there are things that happen that are outside Luke’s viewpoint, but the story really begins when Luke finds his home destroyed, and that propels him to the first act of the story.
Luke is really in a crisis, overwhelmed by a lack of self-confidence because he doesn’t know what is happening around him.
He becomes involved with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Han Solo, and all these setbacks occur as the plot evolves. This is the struggle of Act Two, and all these exciting things are happening.
But Luke isn’t effective yet because he hasn’t overcome his basic flaw, lack of self-confidence. Even though he’s gone through training, he still doesn’t yet understand that he has to believe in himself and the Force.
Star Wars has a very short act three. The Act Two turning point is very easy to identify. It’s when Luke is in his X-wing and he hears the voice of Obi Wan Kenobi, and realizes that he has to trust himself and the Force to make this impossible shot, and not the technology of his ship. Every event leading up to that is still part of Act Two.
Once Luke realizes the truth, he decides to trust the Force, and the climax happens. Darth Vader is defeated, and the movie is wrapped up in a neat ending.
Very little of the movie is the exciting Act Three. In this case, it was really that long struggle during Act Two that was the vast bulk of the movie, when Luke hadn’t yet changed.
Once the protagonist changes, the dramatic tension of the story tends to evaporate, and things need to be wrapped up quickly.
Sometimes Act Three is longer, like when a succession of plans doesn’t work at first. But Steve has also seen novels where the third act is just one page.
The length of the acts doesn’t matter. Making sure events happen in the right order is what matters.
- Begin with a flawed character who has a problem.
- Your flawed character struggles against their flaw to solve their problem.
- Your flawed character changes.
- Your previously flawed character is able to solve their problem after they’ve made the necessary change in their character.
At The Writing Academy, they break the three acts into nine checkpoints, which is actually more manageable than three acts. If you follow the nine checkpoints, you will come up with a novel that works structurally, guaranteed.
The Scene/Sequel Method
The scene/sequel method was developed by Jack Bickham of Oklahoma University.
A novel can be broken down into scene/sequel pairs.
A scene can be one sentence long, or it can take pages.
Every scene has three parts:
- Goal – this is what the viewpoint character is trying to do.
- Conflict – this is how the viewpoint character is being physically opposed from doing it.
- Disaster – the viewpoint character doesn’t accomplish what they’re trying to accomplish.
It seems crazy to say there can be hundreds of scenes in a novel, but let’s look at a simple conversation:
The goal of the conversation: the viewpoint character wants to get some information.
The conflict in the conversation: another character doesn’t want to give up the information the viewpoint character wants.
The disaster in the conversation: the viewpoint character doesn’t get the information they wanted, or the information isn’t what they want to hear.
So you see, not every scene has to have the Death Star blowing up. Every scene before the climax just needs to have a setback for the protagonist.
Those three elements are the plot. They are external to the viewpoint character. Every scene is followed by a…
Every sequel has up to four elements:
- Emotion – your viewpoint character didn’t get what they want. How do they feel about that?
- Thought – so your character didn’t get what they want. What should they do about it now? Your viewpoint character has alternatives, and they consider them in their head.
- Decision – this is where your viewpoint character decides what to do next.
- Action – this is where your viewpoint character takes action based on the decision they’ve made.
The emotion, thought, and decision elements are story elements, because they take place inside the character’s head. The action element returns us to the plot, because it happens in the external world. The action that comes after a decision will often reveal the goal of the next scene.
How to Control the Pace of Your Novel
If you want to speed up the pace of your novel, build up your scenes. That way, more stuff is happening, and it feels like a faster story to your audience.
If you want to slow down the pace of your novel, build up your sequels. Give your character time to reflect and emote. Give your character more time to plan out what to do next.
By adjusting the ratio between your scenes and sequels, you adjust the pace of your novel.
If you want your story to be fast and exciting, you should have a lot of scenes happening. If you want your story to be slower and more thoughtful, you have lots of sequels happening.
That controls the balance between plot and story. The balance can change throughout your novel. Some chapters will have more scenes, other chapters will have more sequels.
“If you feel things are dragging, it’s time to cross out some of those lines of thoughts, reflections, and emotions and get back to the action. If you feel like the reader is getting tired from nothing but nonstop car chases, it’s time to slow down and put in some reflection.”
– Steve Alcorn
Even in the middle of a car chase or something else exciting happening in your story, don’t forget to give the readers some emotion every page, even if it’s just a sentence.
Give us some emotion. Give us some thought. Give us a decision. Don’t let it be just blind action—give us some time to get in the character’s head, and let them reflect on the latest thing that happened, even as they move on to the next exciting thing.
How to Approach Your First Draft
Writing a novel can be tough, but there’s a few things you can do to get started smoothly.
Don’t Worry about Chapter Breaks
A lot of new writers worry too much about where their chapter breaks are, and about the overall word count of their novel. Neither are very important in the beginning.
You want to put a chapter break where people can’t stop reading. That is, you want to end a chapter when something so interesting is happening that the reader has to keep going to see what happens next.
The natural point for a chapter break to occur is after the disaster in the scene. Something horrible has just happened. What’s going to happen next?
The next chapter could open with the sequel to the previous scene, or you could time-jump to some point in the future and have us wonder what did happen. It’s best to decide where those dramatic breaks are later, after you’re done writing your manuscript.
Word Count Doesn’t Matter
Another misconception is the importance of word count. Word count does matter if you’re going to be traditionally published, at least a bit. Word count may also matter depending on the genre of story you’re telling.
But if you’re just starting out, and especially when writing your first draft, don’t worry about the word count.
New authors tend to think that every word they write down in the first draft is going to end up in the book. That couldn’t be further from the truth. A first draft is just that, a first draft. Professional authors will write 3–5 drafts of a manuscript before the book is published.
The second draft of the manuscript doesn’t just involve cutting a few words. The second draft of the manuscript is often a complete rewrite of the story. You shouldn’t worry about making your first draft perfect.
“Many authors will work from a printed copy of their first draft, and actually retype their second draft, saving the parts that they want, but finding new ways to word things as they go, because they know their characters much better now as a result of having completed that first draft.”
– Steve Alcorn
It’s very common for the word count of your manuscript to get shorter with each successive edit. You find ways to say things more clearly and tighten up your language, so that it really sings.
At the same time, if your word count is running short, you don’t really need to worry about it because you can always add in some subplots, or write deeper, richer settings in subsequent drafts. You can also add in other things to pad your word count if you need to.
When you’re writing your first draft, let your creativity flow. You have a plan because you’ve sketched out the nine checkpoints in the three-act structure of your story. You know your protagonist because you’ve done a character sketch and defined their flaw.
Worry about chapter breaks and your final word count when it comes time to edit your manuscript.
Every author can learn to be a good self-editor. No matter how bad your first draft is, those writing skills can be learned.
The Biggest Mistake First-Time Authors Make
The biggest mistake Steve sees first time authors make is that they try to write a novel without a plan.
Steve has taught thousands of students and about 25% of them will introduce themselves by saying, “I had this really good idea/vivid dream that I wanted to write as a novel. After writing the first chapter, I got writers block.”
The truth is, these people didn’t get writer’s block. Their idea ran out of steam. They didn’t know where they were going.
That’s why Steve’s process is for you to take a step back and define these nine checkpoints which give you a roadmap to tell your story.
Creating these nine checkpoints can be as simple as writing nine sentences to give you benchmarks about where you’re going.
A lot of Steve’s students do NaNoWriMo. National Novel-Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, takes place every November. It’s a writing challenge you can sign up for online. Participants commit to try and write 50,000 words in one month.
That 50,000 words may not be enough for a novel in some genres, but it’s a heck of a good start, and it’s a very reasonable goal to try and write that in one month.
A lot of new authors try NaNoWriMo and fail because they don’t have a plan. Steve’s students always have a plan before they start trying to write a novel, in November or any time. A large percentage of them succeed, and at the end of November, they are either ready to edit, or they have a few more chapters to go before they’ve finished their novel.
Having a plan before you start is the key to success.
“Spending a few hours in the planning stage can save you hundreds of hours in rewrites, and can also save you from getting stuck, both of which are disasters.”
– Steve Alcorn
How to Make a Plan for Your Novel
The nine checkpoints Steve recommends are story checkpoints. There are some plot points involved in the planning process. But story checkpoints relate very much to what’s happening inside the character as they move through the plot elements.
The next step after you define those plot checkpoints is to fill in what Steve calls scene markers.
You might have as many as 200 scene/sequel pairs in a novel. You’re not going to jot down all of those. You want to jot down the major plot points that you can think of. The plot points that get your character from point A to point B.
Understanding Your Characters
When Steve is planning a new novel, he’ll spend several days gaining a deep understanding of his characters and what makes them tick. He has a comprehensive character attributes form that he fills out for all his important characters. The form consists of about 100 questions.
This may seem like a waste of time to new writers, but understanding your characters is the most important work you can do. Readers read for character. Readers fall in love with characters. Really understanding your characters makes writing stories and novels much easier.
“The planning process can be the most fun part of writing your novel because it allows you to invent things without doing the work of writing them down. You can think of an idea, jot down three or four words to remind you what it is later, and move on.”
– Steve Alcorn
Links and Resources Mentioned in this Interview
How to Fix Your Novel by Steve Alcorn. Steve goes in depth about how to plan your novel and the nine character checkpoints you need in every story.
https://writingacademy.com/ – the online writing school Steve started with Doran William Cannon. They have classes on many different types of writing.
Get all of Writing Academy’s courses for one low monthly subscription – get all of the courses (valued at over $2,300) for $49 a month.
Get the nonfiction bundle at Writing Academy – get all of their nonfiction writing courses the Nonfiction Writing Workshop, the Write Your Life Story Workshop, and the Publish Your Book Now Workshop for $19 a month
Get the fiction writing bundle at Writing Academy – this bundle includes Beginning Writer’s Workshop, Novel Writing Workshop, Young Adult Fiction Writing Workshop, Writing for Children Writing, and Science Fiction and Fantasy for $29 a month.
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