I keep asking myself the question in the heading.
This all started last summer (2020), I fell headfirst into this idea that plot is driven by fourteen signposts. I actually heard about this method when listening to James Scott Bell on Great Courses and was blown away. Then boom, I’m buying up his books on writing and learning all I can. It felt like he made writing simple and easy to do. This is not the experience, (up till then), that I had. Not by a long shot.
In the back of my head I keep saying to myself that it couldn’t be that easy. There was no way. Come September 2020, I had a novel outlined using Mr. Bell’s formula to outline a plot and the first daft was nearly complete.
I want to be clear that this wasn’t my first novel that I wrote but it was the hardest project I ever wanted to get off the ground. The Smoke Eater has three POV characters and follows a journey of someone who fit’s the anti-hero title. I failed to get this done after trying for 12 years because I didn’t know about plot development.
I owe the missing piece to Mr. Bell, who had a line that I heard over and over again. This (signposts) can work like recipe and if followed you can be successful. The biggest takeaway is that I proved it myself but i wasn’t sold.
Short answer to the above—I think so. But here’s why I’m going to embrace this idea more.
Even though I’m nearly done with what felt like writing an impossible book, I was still on the fence about plot and structure. Over the next year I was resistant but felt open to exploring and studying this idea. I’ve looked at dozens of the books and movies and have yet to prove to myself that the 14 signpost CAN’T be used like a Swiss Army Knife.
A few days ago I went with my two sons to see Black Widow. I enjoyed the movie but fell into a trance. No, I wasn’t fixated on Scarlett Johansson, but I saw the plot structure throughout the move. It’s been happening more often now where I see the elements making up the story. On one side things are getting more predicable but I appreciate it more that I understand what fellow writers are doing to paint their pictures.
I encourage you to read Superstructure, a book on writing by James Scott Bell. Mr. Bell says that his fourteen signposts can fit into any story. I used to take that with a grain of salt but quickly used it again to develop my current WIP, The Expatriate.
Yes—Grain of Salt!
There’s another structure called the Hero’s Journey. I won’t go into details, but it’s a well-known plot structure that has been used countless times to develop classic books and movies. One of the best-known uses of the Hero’s Journey is Star Wars.
I’ll go into more details about the Hero’s Journey and the plot structure another time.
The problem with the Hero’s Journey is you’re not writing with purpose like you would with the Superstructure outline.
Superstructure – Is there a better tool?
I don’t think so.
When I went to school, we based our stories on the Freytag’s Pyramid. That was fine, but there were no signposts to write to. With the Freytag’s model we were supposed to write our story to a climax and then resolve what we could.
In my later years, I found my ideas failed because they went nowhere. I always felt there had to be a better way to write. And of course the one that has struck with me is the work by James Scott Bell.
When watching Black Widow I could see the signposts coming at me. I was able to define the disturbance, the care package, and the point of no return. It was all there.
My epiphany is this—you can lay out any scenario with superstructure or find the signpost in 90% of the stories we have in film and books. I can’t go in full 100% because sometimes it doesn’t cover work that is abstract or experimental.
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2
I don’t want to spoil the Black Widow movie, but I did re-watch another Marvel film this summer with the family. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 has every signpost. Here’s the examples. (BTW will reference the movie below as GGV2).
1. Act 1: Disturbance—This is where the story starts. It’s also supposed to grab the reader and start their engagement with the plot and characters.
Before the disturbance in GGV2, we have a prologue. As per Bell’s teaching we’re not technically at the major disturbance yet, but we’re getting there.
Prologue—Set before the protagonist is born, Star Lord’s parents are having a good time. But evil dad has planted his so-called seed of destruction on earth.
The real disturbance comes shortly when the team is doing battle with a monster in present. This starts the chain of events for the story and the journey begins. There intent is to defeat the monster and get hold of Nebula.
2. Act 1: Care package – There has to be a relationship between the main character and someone else. The author is supposed to setup a relationship(s) so the reader can relate with the lead on a personal level.
In GGV2, Star Lord has a crush on Gamora. This sets up a love interest to the story. Care package is set.
3. Act 1: Argument against transformation—The main character is supposed to change or transform, but we have an issue. It means that the main character has something to learn about themselves but might be resistant to change.
Star Lord is having daddy issues. He seems to be rubbed the wrong way by the High Priestess in the first act that he has strange genetic codes.
4. Act 1: Trouble brewing—This is when the antagonist enters or there is something going on that present a challenge or danger to the lead.
In GGV2, we see this when the High Priestess send her fleet to kill the Guardians of the Galaxy. We also see Yondu a bit later on being brought into the fold.
5. Act 1: Doorway of no return #1—The lead is in it to win it. It also means that the lead has something to solve or overcome. James Scott Bell describes this as death stakes. Death stake can be psychological death, physical death, or professional death.
In GGV2, Star Lord has at last met his long-lost father. The offer is made to go with Ego to a different planet and here the second act can begin.
The death stakes are two-fold – someone is trying to kill them as always – Star Lord is fighting psychological death and is struggling with the appearance of father since he never knew him.
6. Act 2: Kick the shins—just like it sounds. The lead has to feel challenged and it should relate to the death stakes.
In GGV2, this one’s tricky. But Star Lord doesn’t get the kick in the shins in person. The High Priestess has hired Yondu to kill the Guardians of the Galaxy. Essentially, the High Priestess will not give up kill them until the deed is done.
7. Act 2: The mirror moment—The reflection by a character or by someone close to get the lead to see themselves for who they are. This can also be a call for change/transition.
In GGV2, Star Lord has a moment alone with Gamora. At the midpoint of the movie there’s a scene between the two of them when they are talking. Peter tries to woo Gamora with his dance moves. The scene is doing a few things, however, the main one is Star Lord is flirting with a larger concept of being more mature.
I think Star Lord wants Gamora as a lover, but he’d have to grow out of his Playboy ways. She senses that and is waiting for his transformation to show before she commits.
8. Act 2: Pet the dog—This is about a new relationship or the lead helping someone with no benefit to themselves. The intent is to make the lead relatable as a person with morals.
In GGV2, the Pet the Dog moment happened before the mirror moment. This is when the team has accepted Mantis as one of their own.
9. Act 2: Doorway of no return #2—Thrusting the characters into the third act.
In GGV2, Ego forces Star Lord into the third act. He is hatching his plan to eradicate life in the universe and so Ego needs to be defeated.
10. Act 3: Mounting forces—This means both sides should be getting readying for confrontation.
In GGV2, Rocket and Yondu show up to help. But there’s more trouble to deal with. The fleet of the High Priestess shows up to kill the Guardians of the Galaxy.
11. Act 3: Lights out—The darkest moment in the third act.
In GGV2, all seems to be lost when Ego takes control and nearly has everyone either been defeated or is nearly dead.
12. Act 3: Q Factor (based on Q in James Bond)—I plan to write a blog on the Q factor in the future to look at it. However, the Q Factor must be in place before or after the Lights Out and is revealed back in the first act. It can be anything: an icon, a physical object, the memory of a beloved mentor, or cool gadgets.
In GGV2, Rocket has the batteries. He uses them to make a bomb to destroy Ego. We saw those little doodads back in the frist act.
13. Act 3: Final Battle
In GGV2, Star Lord reaches deep down and finds the power to fight his father. This is their chance. Star Lord is using the same power his father has, with motivation from Yondu. Star Lords uses all that he has to beat someone potentially stronger then himself.
14. Act 3: Transformation.
GGV2, Star Lord takes a step towards more responsibilities. We’re led to believe that he might be a more mature and understanding adult when we see him with Baby Groot in the end. He has taken on some dad responsibilities with someone younger and vulnerable.
Also, the father Star Lord never had was there with all along. Star Lord might be grateful now, realizing that he had a good influence in his life, and Yondu admitted he considered him a son. Yondu sacrificed himself for Star Lord, symbolic like a parent would do for their kid.
For next time…
I’m going to write more post about structure in my upcoming posts. I also want to write more about character develop in the near future.
For now, what do you think? I would love your comments and challenges. All are welcome.