Cartesian geometry for dummies

So, this is a little silly, but the more I look at it, the more I think it might turn out to be useful.

I’m a few thousands words from the climax of the first act of my novel, which means that I know how roughly the first quarter, maybe the first third of the thing divides into scenes and chapters. (The second and third acts exist as rough shapes and key events only at the moment).

But I wasn’t quite sure I could see the shape of that first act, to be able to tell whether those scenes and chapters are doing what I want them to. So I decided to try line graphing it. I did it by hand, because all the software I could find wanted data sets, and I wanted to actually draw the line based on arbitrary judgments. Because damn it, Jim, I’m a novelist, not a doctor.

So here it is, in all its low-lit cameraphone glory. The red line is my protagonist’s success, and the blue line is tension. (Note they often move in opposite directions). The only metric along the Y axis is low, medium, high. I do think it was useful, because (as you can tell from the red dotted line I drew in afterward) I realized I needed to give my character more success toward the end of this act, make him feel like he’s winning, give the reader a reason to stay in the game despite the UNREMITTING DEMON ATTACKS.


It just occurred to me, too, that I can go in now and mark my chapter breaks to make sure they’re occurring at the points of high tension. (I only recently figured out that that’s where chapters should end. Sometimes it takes me a while to clue in to these things.)

Now, this is not a substitute for actually getting the words onto the page, and spending half an hour on this tonight meant I probably won’t make today’s word count. But I think it’s important for me to take stock of my story shape from time to time as I go, because my trouble in the past has been that I write a 90,000 word draft, and realize the story is wrong in many ways, and even after revisions it’s wrong in many ways, and have to start fresh. So this time around, I want to have a better sense of the shape as I’m making it. I can’t just hope a shape will mystically emerge; a potter doesn’t just poke and pull at a lump of clay and assume it will turn into a vase.

The shape matters – not that there’s a right or a wrong shape, but the story has to HAVE ONE. As Chuck Wendig says, the shape to avoid is a boring straight line.