Greg shook his head. “Everyone talks about how sophisticated continental Europe is, but I don’t see it. I mean, can you imagine if Prince had sung about how ‘She came in through the ausfahrt’?”
“Greg darling,” sniffed Isadora. “Would you do me the great favor of putting a sock in it? I am trying to have a conversation with my daughter.”
So sometime last week Matt Trepal (creator of Fight Cast or Evade) pointed me at a writing technique called “7-Point Structure.” It’s not that far removed from the Snowflake Method/Five Act Structure I’ve already been using, but it is different enough that it can give you new insights on a story.
The best breakdown of it I’ve found comes from the person who first popularized it, Dan Wells, and you can see that here:
In order to sort of teach myself the ins and outs of it, I decided to make a 7-point breakdown of Zootopia, as that’s fresh in my mind and a remarkably-tight story considering the “toss everything out and start again” way it came together. I mentioned it on Twitter and had several folks express interest, so I’ve decided to post it here, because I love you.
WARNING! ZOOTOPIA SPOILERS AHEAD! BECAUSE DUH.
This discussion assumes you already have the gist of 7-point structure. If not, go watch those videos and come back. 😉 Also, Zootopia (in italics) refers to the story/movie, while Zootopia (not in italics) refers to the city itself.
As John Lasseter so aptly put it, Zootopia‘s real subject is bias, both how it effects people and how they deal with it. As I started dissecting Zootopia I rapidly came to the conclusion that it has three major arcs, to wit Judy Hopps’ arc, Nick Wilde’s arc, and an overall Zootopia’s Promise arc. They are all connected by bias: Judy’s having to cope with bias against the idea of a bunny cop as well as her own bias on the subject of foxes, Nick having internalized the bias against foxes as well as his own bias on the subject of Zootopia’s failure to live up to its own ideals, and all of Zootopia’s struggle with the messy intersection of its stated ideals and the reality of life.
In light of that, the true plot points of Zootopia aren’t necessarily a simple list of “A happened, then B happened, then C happened” but of the characters’ progression. Zootopia is a character-based story, not an event-based one. And here’s how it falls out:
|Starting Point||Hopps: Hopps is discounted as a police officer (by Bogo and Nick)|
|Nick: Nick is convinced there’s no point to being anything but “a shifty fox”|
|Zootopia: Zootopia claims to be “where anybody can be anything” but is far from that in reality|
|Plot Turn 1||Hopps and Nick: Hopps recruits Nick to help her search for Emmet|
|Zootopia: 14 animals are missing|
|Pinch 1||Hopps and Nick: Captured by Mr. Big|
|Zootopia: Manches goes savage|
|Midpoint||Hopps: Nick stands up to Bogo for Hopps|
|Nick: Hopps saves Nick’s life during the Manches chase and shows him respect and compassion|
|Zootopia: Lionheart is arrested, revealing that all the missing animals are predators turned savage|
|Pinch 2||Hopps: Hopps resigns from ZPD in despair|
|Nick: Nick feels betrayed and breaks off his friendship w/ Hopps|
|Zootopia: Zootopia is violent and full of prejudice|
|Plot Turn 2||Hopps: Hopps figures out the mystery|
|Nick: Nick realizes Hopps truly values his friendship and forgives her|
|Zootopia: Bellweather’s plot is revealed|
|Resolution||Hopps and Nick: They become respected police and equal partners|
|Zootopia: Zootopia lives up to its promise, even though “life is messy”|
The way the 7-point structure works is that you start with your desired end state and from there you make the start the opposite of that. Thus, if the end state is “Judy and Nick are partners and Zootopia is making progress on its ideals” then the beginning has to be “Judy and Nick are enemies and Zootopia is failing or actively working against its ideals.” In this particular case, it’s Bellweather who’s actively working against Zootopia’s ideals, but she wouldn’t be able to succeed if the rest of the city didn’t already have the underlying tensions that she exploits.
Each plot turn or pinch, therefore, is a stepping stone from the starting point to the resolution. An interesting thing to note is that a lot of scenes or moments that stand out about Zootopia do not actually register in terms of plot: the character of Flash for instance, while an awesome piece of set dressing, doesn’t really impact the story at all except as a plot device to burn up some of Judy’s timer and add dramatic tension to the “Nick stands up to Bogo” moment. The character of Gazelle, despite her incredibly catchy song, is not important to the plot at all except as a sort of mouthpiece for the ideals that Zootopia is failing to live up to.
This kind of analysis can show you hidden things about your story, such as empowerment issues. For instance, if you have a story full of “strong women,” but all of the plot points are driven by male characters, guess what? You still have a patriarchal story. (Not a problem in the case of Zootopia, but one I did find in another piece I applied this method to.) It can also help you boil down your story to the most essential elements, and show you where things need to be stronger.
For instance, if your resolution is “Luke becomes a fully trained Jedi” and your starting point is “Luke is a mostly-trained Jedi,” this is gonna be a pretty weaksauce arc. On the other hand, if your resolution is “Luke becomes a fully trained Jedi” and your starting point is “Luke is a powerless nobody in the middle of nowhere,” you’ve got a lot more to work with!
In the case of Zootopia, they did a really good job intertwining the characters’ arcs with the thematic (“Zootopia’s Promise”) arc. Judy and Nick have to be friends and equals at the end: therefore they have to be enemies and socially-disparate at the beginning. But the reason they are enemies is because Zootopia isn’t living up to its ideals.
Dude. That’s some tight plotting.
This, more than any adorable furry critters or catchy songs, is why Zootopia works. It’s just damn well written!
The tech writing hasn’t entirely gone as planned (although it has had some interesting twists). So instead I’ve ended up redoubling my efforts in the novel writing department. I polished up and submitted Sky Pirates of Calypsitania for publication, and have spent the past week on a second draft of Tend on Mortal Thoughts, my first completed Michael Macbeth novel.
(Speaking of Michael Macbeth, I will probably post “The Unfortunately-Worded Affair of Mister Fox,” an unpublished MM short story, for my Patreon supporters soon. It’s languished too long in development heck waiting for the would-be publisher to move on it.)
Anyhow! As I’ve been chewing on how to make writing pay, I’ve been thinking quite a bit on prolific… ness? Prolificitude? (Bah. There isn’t a good word for “the state of being prolific.” The closest one is “prolificacy,” which is the sort of word that makes me wince and reach for another cup of coffee.) Point is, the writers with the most financially-rewarding careers, are the ones who write and publish a lot.
Well, I’m halfway there: I write a lot. Unfortunately, it tends to come in the form of blog posts or miscellaneous stuff related to my D&D game! But as I’ve truly committed to “writing IS my day job,” this is shifting. James Van Pelt recently posted on the subject of prolificitatiousness, saying, “I feel more professional when I produce stories and submit them at a regular interval. I feel less like a hobbyist. This is not a dig on writers who are not prolific. It is only a comment on how I feel. Everyone’s path up the mountain is their own.” It’s a good article in general and I highly recommend it, but this particular post resonated the most strongly with me.
I have suffered for most of my writing career from a perfectionist streak that has often led to paralysis. Just look at Michael Macbeth: I created the character back in 1995 or so, and have started and discarded at least five novels trying to “get him right” (and being increasingly frustrated that none of them were as good as his inspiration, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency). I recently had a long and frustrated rant on Twitter (later repackaged to my LiveJournal) about problems with the entire concept of a Brigid and Greg novel, and so on.
But the thing is, all of these issues stem from a place of shortage: if I only have one or two books, then those one or two books have to be TEH TOTALLY AWESOME because they’re all I’ve got to show! On the other hand… if I have a lot of books? The qualities of any one book are considerably less self-defining. Yes, Brigid and Greg have a diversity problem… but on the other hand the heroine of Sky Pirates of Calypsitania is a bisexual woman of color. By writing a lot of books, and a lot of different books, I can build a career that hits all the bases, instead of just sitting there fretting about how to “make this book do everything.”
Strange as it sounds, a lot of this was prompted by that crazy ghostwriting gig offer, because when I was looking at that, for the first time I actually thought in terms of “If I was writing 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, how much could I really produce?” Obviously, if I could crank out the “15,000 original, quality words per week” the gig wanted, I’d be set for life, and I sure as heck wouldn’t need to be ghostwriting (although I would probably need a pen-name or two).
But with the Snowflake Method, and with Scrivener, and the various other tools and techniques I’ve been teaching myself, I do think it’s within my power to write a novel every three months or so, which would make four a year. With time and practice, I might be able to go even faster. And that would not exactly be a career to sneeze at, either!
So that’s what I’m gonna do. 🙂
Last night I received an offer that both delighted and perplexed me. It was a ghostwriting gig, except it wasn’t a single gig so much as an open-ended contract. It can best be summarized as “I give you a list of genres and you write me 60,000 quality-and-totally-original words per month forever.”
I’m going to take the high road and assume this person doesn’t know anything about writing. Suffice to say, if it were that easy to just churn out 60,000 quality-and-totally-original words per month every month in whatever genre I felt like, I would have a bibliography the size of Agatha Christie by now– and I sure as heck wouldn’t need a ghostwriting gig.
As ridiculous as the proposition was, it did kinda make me squee, on the grounds that it’s a sign I’m moving in the right direction. The timing of it, coming as it did on the same day that I sent my first novel submission off to a major New York publisher, is just too good.
However, it also prompted me to do some number crunching about just what being a dedicated and businesslike wordsmith should entail. Working backwards from my desired annual income, and picking an arbitrary (but reasonable) estimate of “words per hour,” I worked out both an hourly rate and a “per word” rate, suitably padded to allow for things like self-employment taxes and stupidly expensive American insurance. Applying that rate to a novel also told me how much each one should make in order to hit that goal, which means I now have an idea of what my minimum to negotiate for should be.
I haven’t decided whether or not to send the final rate back to the ghostwriter gig guy for chuckles. I have a feeling he would hiss and curl up like a dead spider. On the other hand, it would be disingenuous of me, because as I say, if I were writing 60k quality-and-totally-original words per month? I’d be selling those guys under my own name and be an A-list author.
Which is not a bad plan, actually. Think I’ll get to work on that.
“Well, young Greg, do you see anything on the menu that suits you?” Isadora asked.
“Quite a bit actually,” Greg said. “The hard part is narrowing it down to a single dish.”
“Ugh,” said Brigid. “There’s not enough chocolate on this menu. I’m going straight for dessert.”
“It’s an Italian restaurant,” said Greg. “Where would you possibly put chocolate besides a caffé mocha?”
“Lots of places!” said Brigid. “I mean really, eggplant parmesan? Fuck that noise. Smothered in chocolate is the only way you’d get me to eat eggplant.”
“You’ve never even had eggplant,” said Isadora.
“And nobody ever serves it smothered in chocolate,” said Brigid. “I detect a pattern.”
“Not everything is enhanced by adding chocolate,” said Greg.
“Oh yes it is,” said Brigid. “There’s nothing on this menu that wouldn’t be better with chocolate. Spaghetti? Better with chocolate. Lasagna? Better with chocolate. Garlic bread? Better with chocolate. Hell, I’d eat wasps if they were covered in chocolate.”
“Is that something you’re often called upon to do?” Greg asked.
“Well, no,” said Brigid. “But if the situation ever comes up, I know my stance on it.”
“At least you’ve got it well thought-out,” Isadora said, and quaffed some more of her wine sample.
“Shakespeare would be proud,” Greg agreed.
“To thine own chocolate, be true,” Brigid said, and began to raid the bowl of after-dinner mints.
“Ugh, St. Patrick’s Day, what have they done to you?” said Greg, wincing in dismay at the bar they drove past. “When I was a kid St. Patrick’s Day was ‘wear something green or you get pinched.’ When did it turn into ‘virulent idiots getting drunk on green beer’?”
“When I was a kid Halloween was ‘trick or treat,'” said Brigid. “When did it turn into ‘Sexy Axe Murderer’ costumes? Everything’s been screwed up for ages now. I blame the baby boomers.”
“Yeah. Growing up being told everything was all about them, they believed it, and have just trashed the country and the culture.”
“Hmm,” said Greg. “Well as much as I’d love to use them as a scapegoat, those aren’t baby boomers wearing plastic leprechaun hats and getting blotto we just passed. And it’s certainly not baby boomers in the Sexy Axe Murderer costume. Not any more, at least. You may have an argument for baby boomers having made the mess, but let’s be honest, generation X isn’t exactly cleaning up after them very well.”
“When you grow up in the asylum, you don’t realize that everyone around you is insane,” said Brigid. “Generation X was screwed from the start. All we can do is try to pave the way for the millennials to un-break the world.”
“…says the woman who thinks children should neither be seen nor heard,” said Greg.
“I believe that children are the future,” Brigid said. “And they can have it.”