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October 2012

Reporter: Laura McClellan

Laura McClellandMcClellan has been married for more than 30 years to the same man (she claims to have been a child bride). Together they’ve raised five kids, two of whom have generously provided them with (so far) five beautiful grandchildren. She is a partner in a large law firm in Dallas, commuting from a small farm in the country. She is working on her first novel and blogs at I Was Just Thinking . . ..

Presenter: Susan Meissner

Susan MeissnerMeissner is the multi-published author of The Shape of Mercy, named by Publishers Weekly as one of the top 100 novels of 2008 and the ECPA book of the year for fiction. When she’s not writing she directs the Small Groups and Connection Ministries at her San Diego church.

Workshop 7: Plot Your Novel in 30 Episodes

Blank bookMulti-published author Susan Meissner invited attendees into her writing process in her ACFW conference workshop, Plot Your Novel in 30 Episodes.

“I’m a plotter,” Meissner said, “but whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, this approach can help you” avoid the paralysis of not knowing what comes next. Her method uses the classic three-act story structure, with two plot pivots (events that change the story’s direction) to transition from one act to the next.

First, craft your premise

A premise, Meissner said, is a short statement (think elevator pitch) of who the story is about, what she wants (internal and external goals), and why. Then add what’s at stake and why it matters to the character? Once you have the premise, post it on your computer so it’s a handy target to shoot for as you write.

Then, list what needs to happen

Meissner recommends you leave your computer for the next step. Using paper and pen, make a list of 30 things that must happen in your story. Her 30-item list of specific episode types starts with the Set-Up/Opening Shot (episode 1) and ends with “Day New, Mon!” (episode 30—the denouement).

She stressed that the list identifies episodes, which aren’t necessarily the same as scenes. “It might take several chapters to cover a single episode,” Meissner said, “or a single short scene.” Her books are typically about forty 10-page chapters that cover 30 episodes.

She says authors don’t need to know all 30 episodes before they start writing, but recommends knowing at least these six key episodes:

  1. The inciting incident (episode 3) – The moment in the character’s world when “something’s different, something changes, something’s not quite right.”
  2. Plot Pivot 1 (episode 5) – The moment when everything changes, the external goal becomes apparent, and a plan is devised to achieve it. This is the end of Act 1.
  3. The Disaster (episode 24) – The moment near the end of Act 2 when the goal appears wholly unattainable.
  4. The Crisis (episode 25) – The character’s dark night of the soul.
  5. Plot Pivot 2 (episode 26) – The moment when there’s no going back.
  6. The Climax (episode 28) – The final battle.

Once authors identify these six episodes, it’s time to start writing—you can fill in the other episodes as you go, adding Twists/Setbacks and complications.

As you brainstorm the 30 episodes, Meissner encourages authors to “exploit your character’s motivator.” Referring to your premise, think about your character’s “why,” his or her prime motivations (love, greed, revenge, hope, survival). Then exploit those to create dramatic events that test your character’s tensile strength—how far can you push him before he breaks?

Blank book image courtesy of nattavut/


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