This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead!
Last time, I decided to call the stone-age version of Christopher “God-Speaker,” as the keeper of his tribe’s little stone god figure. I dipped my toes into the research on the first ancient migrants to North America. And I spent some time on the first two chapters – introducing Christopher to the perils and mysteries of Razor Mountain, then introducing God-Speaker and his tribe, who are about to be in desperate circumstances.
What Makes an Act?
When I’m just starting on an outline, the structure I start with is three acts. This is the boring default: beginning, middle and end, but it can change as needed, as the story begins to have its own unique shape. The beginning, the first act, is about setting up the conflicts and getting the characters into trouble. The middle, the second (and usually longest) act, is about the action of the characters in response to the conflicts, and the changes they undergo. The third and final act is about the peak of the conflict and its resolution, happy or unhappy. It’s also about how the characters change after facing it.
There are many ways to break out of the bog-standard three-act structure. For starters, characters don’t need to go through all these steps at the same time. There may be more than one middle act, structured around a series of conflicts. There may be false endings or dangling threads that tie into larger narratives (as with a series).
Some people seem to want to fight against the three-act structure. Nonetheless, three acts are a starting point that feels good, and helps me organize my early thoughts.
Conflicts and Changes
I honestly only have one character in the story at this point. Even if I treat Christopher and his alter-ego God-Speaker as distinct characters, that’s a little sparse to carry the whole book. I’m hoping that as I define their paths through the story, I’ll start to see some holes around that path where other characters can start to fit and develop.
We know at this point that God-Speaker comes to be something of a cult leader, a god-figure, and the “man behind the curtain” in Razor Mountain. He’s backed by the power of the artifacts. He’s a personality and a force to be reckoned with. I like the idea that Christopher, at least in the beginning, is none of those things.
Christopher’s path will be defined by the conflicts he’s up against, and how he changes in response to them. If he starts out mild-mannered, boring and a little unhappy with his lot in life, that gives him plenty of room to grow in response to the considerable hardship he’s about to face.
Like real people, characters are shaped by their experiences. Christopher starts out as a scaredy-cat, someone who always chooses the safe route, the easy way. So, why is that? Perhaps he has some trauma in his childhood that affected him, and this is the result?
I thought for a bit, and came up with this: Christopher was doing something foolish and dangerous as a child, and his older brother saved him from the consequences, but died in the process. Christopher, of course, felt guilty about this. His parents, having lost a child, became overly protective of the one they had left. And Christopher internalized this as an intense aversion to risk and danger. He turns inward and worries more and more about himself.
With this conflict, Christopher’s opportunity to change is to overcome his fears, to become less inward-looking. He is forced into situations where he has no choice but to take risks and face dangers. And ideally, he is forced to look outward at other people, and worry about them instead of just himself.
Charting a Course
Christopher starts out scared and alone after the plane crash. He ends the story having overcome his fear, and realizes that he (as the latest iteration of God-Speaker) is responsible for all sorts of bad things going on at Razor Mountain. (Details to be determined later.) Between these points are the three acts.
I like the idea of the first act being mostly focused on Christopher alone, trying to make his way through the wilderness and overcoming some of his own internal issues. However, I want to introduce another character as we approach the middle of the book. This is a person (maybe a child?) who Christopher barely sees, skulking in the trees or the rocky terrain, but who occasionally helps him out by guiding him to the right path, or providing a freshly-killed rabbit.
Along his journey, Christopher also has brief encounters with the “main” group of people living at Razor Mountain. I’m starting to have some ideas about Razor Mountain society, but I’ll come back to those next session. The main group is an insular and secretive group. Along his journey, Christopher’s only interaction with these people is through mysterious radio chatter, their artifacts and abandoned buildings, and in one case, their people shooting at him from a distance.
In the second act, I envision him arriving at Razor Mountain. The mysterious person who helped him leads him to her people – a group of outcasts from the main group. These are people who wanted to leave, which is not allowed. They hide from the main group, honing their survival skills in hopes of becoming skilled enough to travel to some distant town and make their way from there. Christopher can get a skewed idea of Razor Mountain society from these people, who have their own biased perspective as well as limited knowledge of what’s actually going on.
These outsiders will be excited by his arrival. He’s the only outsider they’ve ever met. But they’re disappointed when they find out he came to them trying to find his own way out.
Some of these outsiders are looking to get back into the good graces of the main group, and they decide to use Christopher as a bargaining chip. They bring him to the main group, where he is promptly imprisoned and interrogated to determine what he knows.
Through his interactions with these people, he tries to figure out what is actually happening in Razor Mountain. He tries to convince these people that what he tells them about the outside world is true. Eventually, his presence comes to the attention of the inner circle that actually wields power.
In the third act, he interacts with the inner circle, finding out more about how the people of Razor Mountain are deceived to control them. He has to navigate the politics of this small group, and eventually figure out which ones were trying to kill him, and which have his best interests at heart. Then he goes through the process of regaining all of God-Speaker’s memories.
At the end of the book, he must decide if he wants to put things back to the way they were, with himself as ruler of this little kingdom, or if he wants to change it and make things better.
There’s still a lot of detail that’s missing here, even in this simple outline, but it’s an adequate starting point. The first act feels most defined, while the latter 2/3 of the book are still mushy. As I create more detailed outline for the first part of the book, it will provide more foundation to flesh out the middle.
I made a first attempt at creating an act-level outline of the story. It’s useful to see where the plot is still really vague. It also helps to determine what the different groups of people are, and illustrate some of the other characters that can be fleshed out: the child-hunter who helps Christopher, some of the outsiders (including those who turn him in), the people he interacts with in the main group, and the secret inner circle members.
Next time, I’ll work on some of these characters, get into the detailed outline of the first act, or think more about God-Speaker’s back-story.