What the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams Seminar Taught Me About Plot

I’m flying back to Cedar Rapids this morning,* but I wanted to tell you all that Maggie Stiefvater’s Portraits and Dreams writing seminar was AMAZING and HUGELY INFORMATIONAL and OH WOW I WANT TO START WRITING THIS BOOK RIGHT AWAY EXCEPT I HAVE A FEW MORE PIECES I NEED TO PUT TOGETHER FIRST, and if you were thinking about attending one of the upcoming Portraits and Dreams seminars you have my word that it is SO SO SO SO WORTH IT.

That said, I’m not going to give you any specifics as to what was discussed at the seminar, because no spoilers.

I will note that before I actually start writing NEXT BOOK I am going to do some extra background work on the mood I’m trying to convey with this story, which is not technically a spoiler because Maggie Stiefvater has already written about the importance of mood in storytelling on her Tumblr.

I’ll also note that the seminar made me think absolutely 100% differently about plot. This I think I can share, because it wasn’t actually discussed in the seminar at all.

Well, plot was. In the traditional three-act-structure sense.

I have never been a huge fan of the traditional three-act structure, mostly because I could see through it by the time I was ten years old. (It was 1992. I was watching The Mighty Ducks, and when they got to the part where the coach did a bad thing and the team split up but then someone came back with an inspirational speech and they all went out on the ice anyway I remember thinking all these stories are just telling the same story and I was furious.)

This is one of the reasons why The Biographies of Ordinary People is episodic. That and the fact that I was trying to write a contemporary book that made 30-something readers feel the way we did when we read (or re-read) Little Women or Anne of Green Gables, both of which are episodic stories.

But Maggie was talking about the way she used three-act structure in The Raven Boys, and I was sitting there thinking “well, but that isn’t really three-act structure because there isn’t the part where the coach does a bad thing and then the team splits up and then someone comes back with an inspirational speech and they all go out on the ice anyway OH WAIT.”

Substitute Cabeswater for “the ice,” and literally all of that happens in The Raven Boys. It’s just not the emotional focus of the story. When Gansey and Adam fight and the team does in fact split up, you don’t really notice that’s where you are in the three-act structure because emotionally you’re with Gansey and Adam in this intimate, human, complicated moment. You don’t even notice that the team has split up because the team doesn’t think they’re split up. (Or, more accurately, they’re still hoping they can stay together.)

In other words, unlike the types of books that made me never want to write a traditionally-plotted novel in my life, the chapter doesn’t end with “The door slammed. That was it. The Raven Boys were through.”

Maggie did not discuss how to write the type of story that has the emotional satisfaction of the traditional three-act structure** without the predictability of such, but it made me think of her blog post about how to create characters that aren’t cartoons or clichés.

I suspect the path towards creating a plot that isn’t a cliché leads in the same direction.

Anyway, NEXT BOOK is going to have a traditional three-act structure now.*** First to see if I can do it, and second to see if I can hide what I’m doing while I’m doing it.

Wish me luck. ❤️

*This is a lie. Not the part where I’m flying back to Cedar Rapids on Monday morning. The part where I actually wrote this post on Sunday night.

**We did discuss emotional satisfaction in the seminar, so no spoilers, but I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to hint that Aristotle was right.

***I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a goof, but no I didn’t really have a structure for NEXT BOOK. My outline had an opening, and it had an inciting incident, and then it had a bunch of episodes because I’m reallll good with episodes, and then it had a big thing that changed everything, and then I told myself I’d figure the rest out when I got there. TIME TO FIGURE IT OUT, and also cut a few of those episodes and make the whole story actually story-shaped.

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