When structuring a novel, you have pages 50 to 75 for your hero to decide what to do next.
June 1, 2013
Recap: Within the first 15 pages, set the hook and establish the theme. Within the first 50 pages, establish the set up for the plot and introduce your primary characters, complete with flaws and weaknesses. Between pages 36 and 50, you will interject the life-changing moment, a single incident where nothing will ever be the same again.
Now you’ve done it. You had a nice little story rolling along. You thought the hook was pretty good, you had the ragged ends of a plot dangling around in the back of your mind, and you really liked your characters. You knew the good guys from the bad guys, and you had given the good guys some flaws and the bad guys some good points just to make them all believable and memorable.
You were sailing along without a care in the world, racing from page to page, and everything was sunlight and roses or dark clouds and rainstorms, depending on the genre.
Then out of the blue, when you least expected it, you reached page forty and tossed in the defining moment that would change the life of the story and the hero for all time. Nothing would ever be the same again.
The plot took on a new twist.
The novel now had a life of its own.
Between pages fifty and seventy-five, the hero begins that painful, self-inflicted, soul searching, conscience probing inquisition, questioning past, future, motives, fears, thoughts, anger, and perhaps a total lack of confidence as he or she desperately tries to decide what to do next.
The question is two-fold. And both have to be decided in these twenty-five pages. The ultimate decision may be a little later if the novel is longer than three hundred to three hundred and fifty pages. But here is where the reader expects it to be.
First question for the hero to answer: What needs to be done?
And a second question is even more critical: How can I personally accomplish it.
Here is where the hero takes charge. It may be against his her will. It may be against his or her better judgment. The hero might prefer that someone else come along and solve the problem, unravel the riddle, find a solution, get to the bottom of the mystery, and remove the impending danger.
The hero has no choice. The hero has to do it. Within these twenty-five pages, he or she has to come to grips with the situation and make the determination to battle the odds and meet the conflict head-on, win or lose. The hero has no other choice.
Let’s remember for a moment about one of the life changing moments we discussed in the previous section. The woman received a phone call in the middle of the night. She heard a police officer inform her that her husband had been mysteriously murdered. Her name was on the death list. The problem? She had never been married.
After her self-imposed inquisition and internal debate, the woman knows she must discover the identity of the man who was killed, find out why anyone would think he was her husband, and ultimately track down whoever it is that wants her dead, too. She knows better. She realizes that it is a foolish decision. But the police aren’t a lot of help. They can’t do much for her unless she takes a bullet. She’s a simple working girl and doesn’t have enough money to hire a private detective. Her friends all play bridge. They can’t help her. The preacher will pray for her but little else.
So how can she accomplish the task? The woman does have an old pistol that her father left her when he died. So, with no other option open to her, she drops the pistol in her purse, goes straight to the shooting range, and asks for instruction on how to load and fire the little revolver. She is such a novice, but so determined, that she catches the eye of an Afghanistan war vet who agrees to help her at least pass her test in order to carry a concealed weapon. He only wants to teach her to shoot but finds himself caught up in the web of her dilemma.
She took charge. And now she has a love interest. Of course, she never realizes that the man with the prosthetic leg at the firing range was in Black Ops until she finds the bad guys, and he kicks the door open, and all hell breaks loose.
She would have been a lonely young lady living by herself if the phone call had not awakened her in the middle of the night.
She would have lived as a recluse, worrying, and wringing her hands in fear, afraid even to answer the phone or the door, if she had not decided to fight back.
The war veteran, a victim of post traumatic stress syndrome and self-pity, would have succumbed to his own demons, mental and physical, if she had not given him a reason to live and return to being the man he really was and had always been.
The woman had a life-changing moment.
She made the decision that changed her future and the lives of those around her.
Big decisions are never easy to make. But she had decided what must be done, and she chose to find a way to accomplish it. She left the old world that had once imprisoned her and walked boldly into a new world.
This is vital to remember. Your hero can’t be tricked into taking charge. Your hero can’t simply drift into taking charge. It would be deadly if she were at the coffee shop and stumbled into the war vet, told him her frightening story, and he said, “Why, little lady, I’ll get my AK 47, we’ll saddle up, and go after the bad guys.” At that point, the novel dies and the story is dead.
The hero has made the decision to move forward and charge ahead on her own. She finds the war vet only because she is on the firing range learning to defend herself when she solves the mystery and learns the truth. She’s going on with or without him. She never considers whether or not she will even need him. It’s her fight. Nobody’s going to stop her. He goes along for two reasons. He likes and misses the action. She has a pretty smile and long legs.
It’s a deadly combination.