Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Putting the Story Together Historical Fiction Series - Part Three

By: Jason Evans

March brings the worst snow to Colorado while also bringing dreams of sunny Aprils and warm Mays. Welcome back to the Pikes Peak Historical fiction blog. In January we talked about the idea for your story. here In February, we talked about doing preliminary research on your novel. here  Today we talk about how to put the story together itself.

Now full disclosure here: I am NOT a pantser. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then let me introduce you to the writing conflict of our time: Pantser vs. Plotter.

I would normally be described as a plotter. I use Blake Snyder’s screen writing book, Save the Cat, like a religious text. I have a poster-size piece of paper with all my plot points written out. I then write detailed notes on each scene I’m going to write, using 3 x 5 note cards. I carry these note cards with me religiously when I’m working on a novel. I plan out everything. (Yes, I am a little neurotic.)

Pantsers can’t stand people like me. They like to sit down in front of a computer screen, no formula, no outline, and just write. They may or may not have an idea where the story is going. They could start out writing a historical fiction that turns into a paranormal romance. They could start out writing a murder mystery that turns into a thriller. For them, the excitement is in not knowing where the story will take them.

While my OCD kicks in hard when I talk to these people, I do get what they feel. So I’m not going to judge. My advice to you today will be very general, and as always, I’ll get into more details on my own blog later. But there is nothing wrong with either.

Every novel must have certain elements or else it isn’t a novel. This is particularly true in historical fiction. Forgive me if all of you know this, but I want to cover the basics. Here is what you need:

Character development
Scene craft

Now, I’ve left a lot out of this list, but I wanted to cover the basics with you. The Plot is the sequence of events inside a story and how they affect one another through cause and effect.

There should be highs and lows in the Plot.

Conflict is about what is preventing your characters from getting what they want. Who or what is standing in their way? Usually there are four kinds of conflict: Man v. Man, Man v. Society, Man v. Nature, and Man v. Self.  

The book World War Z by Max Brooks, is Man v. Nature. In fact, every zombie story is a Man v. Nature story. It’s the world and its new rules that the protagonist has to figure out. Once he’s learned to “Live in nature,” he’s conquered it.

A Song of Ice & Fire has several conflicts, but many of the main characters, (Circe, Tyrion, Ned Stark,) are involved in Man v. Society conflict. The world expects one thing from them and they want to do something else. Their struggles are centered in their desire to live one way and society's desire that they live another.

One of the major flaws of all new authors is that of Character Development. New WIPs from green authors usually have perfect protagonists. They are handsome, well adjusted, successful and ethical. (Did I forget rich?) The problem is that no reader will ever identify with characters that perfect. This is why you need Character Development, or a character arc. While commercial fiction does require a likable protagonist, that doesn’t mean perfect. Besides, it’s their flaws that make them charming.

In Nora Roberts Born in Ice (The Irish born Trilogy,) the protagonist Brianna Concannon runs a Bed & Breakfast in Western Ireland. She is a proud, people adverse, introverted, mouse-of-a-woman. Brianna has a heart of gold, but her anal retentiveness and pride in her house become endearing to the reader. Her character development involves her opening up and becoming open to love.

Every character needs a wound to heal or a flaw to overcome. Your reader will root for your protagonists if they learn from their mistakes and grow as human beings throughout the story. A great way to do this is to have your characters call their own problems. Don’t have characters react to external events consistently. Give them flaws and have them face problems created by those flaws. Have your protagonists face their flaws and make amends, overcoming them.

I have a book recommendation to help you with it. Local Denver author Stant Litore has written a book about the character arc called Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget. I won’t sugar coat it for you; the exercises in this book can be a little tedious, but they will help you flesh out your characters and give them depth. It is time well spent on your story. I liked the book so much that, even though I write plot-driven stories, I make sure to color coat character arc scenes on my Save the Cat outline board.

The next item on our list is genre. Every genre has its own convention. In Historical Fiction, a clear genre convention is that your story must stay within the bounds of actual history. If it doesn’t it isn’t historical fiction anymore. Whether you’re writing about fictional characters experiencing historical events, or writing a fictional account of historical figures suffering through historical events, the events themselves must not change. In addition, things like costumes, values, social norms and levels of knowledge should be as accurate as possible, or you’ll turn off your reader. (If your novel features Confederates winning at Gettysburg – especially with assault rifles – you’ve written science fiction, not historical fiction.)

Lastly, we have Scene Craft. Scene Craft is about how you present the little stories that make up your novel. How each event hurls the reader down a tense road towards a climatic conclusion. (Will the 10th Mountain Division take that Italian Monastery from the Nazis? Will Betty & Jake ever get together? Can the plucky rebels defeat the evil dark lord?)

Author Warren Hammond and Literary Slush reader Angie Hodapp talked about this on Saturday, March 4th. They borrowed the diagram below from author Dwight V. Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling Author.  The diagram (which they designed) is below. In essence, it’s the PLOT of each scene.

But Scene Craft is also about dialogue writing, describing emotions, the voice of the characters involved. It can be overwhelming.

I don’t mean to scare anybody with this. However, these are things that should be in the back of your mind as you write your historical fiction novel. It’s a lot of work, I know. But if you’ve stayed with me for two months now, then you are clearly not a member of the herd. You have a story inside of you, and it needs to get out. So get it out! Write your novel! Let me give you a couple of shortcuts.

Every story, in my humble opinion, should follow the Three Act Structure.


ACT 1: Thesis. The protagonist is living his life, with or without satisfaction. Something happens and he is given a Call to Adventure. Maybe its Gandalf showing up at the shire, or King Robert Baratheon asking Ned Stark to be Hand of the King. The protagonist must think about this request, debate it. Then he must choose of his own free will, to answer the call and leave the safety of his world behind. 

ACT 2: Anti-Thesis. The protagonist is in a strange new world. The old rules don’t apply. He’s had some successes, but he makes mistakes. At some point in the middle of ACT 2, (Which should be in the middle of your book,) your protagonist must have either a false victory or a false defeat.  He must get to the midpoint and realize this is not what he wanted.

Then the bad guys strike back, your protagonist goes through more struggles. At some point he wants to give up. Blake Snyder calls this the dark night of the soul. Here there must be a whiff of death. Maybe oblivion is preferable? He goes through an existential crisis. When he comes out of that crisis, he must choose of his own free will, to continue the fight. This leads them to Act 3.

ACT 3: Synthesis. The protagonist takes everything he’s learned in Act 1 and combines it with everything he's learned in Act 2. He synthesizes his experience and comes up with new solutions to his problems and fixes them. The end.

I hope this has been helpful. If you have any questions, leave them in the comment section below and I’ll answer them. Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, you can take these general guidelines and apply them to your writing. Good luck! Let me know how you’re doing!    
You can like his Facebook author page, Jason Henry Evans
Or, follow him on Twitter @evans_writer


  1. Jason, once again, I'm intrigued. But I do have a question, and maybe it's semantics. It has to do with Act 1. and you state Of His Own Free Will. Okay, I get that he's called out of his ordinary world and a call to adventure, and I actually prefer seeing stories like these rather than to get caught up in the adventure and try to work backwards. But why is it "of his own free will." Case in point. The movie "Taken." The hero's daughter is abducted and he has to go after the kidnappers.... What about when someone is coerced to take an assignment/mission/what if he/she is the victim.... I guess I'm getting hung up on "his own free will."

  2. Great question Donnell! The protagonist Bryan Mills (played by Liam Neeson,) chooses to go after his daughter. Yes, he is compelled to, but its still his choice. He could have asked a CIA buddy to go. He could have informed the local police and Interpool. He doesn't. HE goes. There's the difference. This is what makes him a hero.

    1. Love this explanation! Hero material, of course. So, if someone is say a victim and must fight to survive. It's his/her choice to fight not to play victim -- free will. Am I close?

    2. Yes! All story, in my opinion, is about the human experience. We want to root for the protagonist to find his/her own answers! To figure out the problem, face it and overcome. This is why having the metaphorical cavalry come is usually done so poorly. We want the protagonist to win on their own!


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