Three Dirty Birds and the Story Core

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The Three Dirty Birds are back with more Libbie Hawker and we’re Taking Off Our Pants again! (Okay, bad pun. Bad Kitty) We’re talking about the Core of Every story, and Libbie’s Three-legged Outline (Which makes me giggle, ‘cause I’m just that mature today.)

Zoe: I remember laughing at the three-legged outline explanation. The book’s not just useful but funny.

Kate: I have to throw this quote from this section out there “before you can run freely through the literary wilds, sans pants”. *Snort*

Zoe: I hope there are no thorny bushes in the literary wilds. *ouch*

Libbie tells us that every compelling story shares five elements: A character, who wants something, but something prevents him from getting it, so he struggles against that force, and either succeeds or fails. This was the point in the book where I’d wondered if I’d just bought another same-old, same-old writing craft book, because there’s nothing new in that. (She was just lulling me into complacency though.)

Kate: I don’t think you’re going to find any writing book that doesn’t address the Hero’s Journey in some form, though. I likes the way she put it in a list. I like lists.

Zoe: Yes, she’s very good at making things concise. It’s like she didn’t feel the pressure to fill 236 pages; she just focused on conveying information. (A very welcome thing. Especially after that other “outlining” book.)

Ana: Not feeling pressured to fill pages is always good. I’m actually really enjoying not having a set wordcount for the story I’m writing now. And since I have story goals instead of word count goals, I don’t have a reason to look at my wordcount. (Although, of course, I do. Old habits…)

Zoe: Yeah, I jot mine down at the end of the day, because that’s the language we writers discuss our progress in, but I do enjoy writing to story goals much better than writing to word count. I feel like I’ve made progress more.

Kate: I like it too. You can see progress in the important part, which is the plot and character arcs, and not just filling in space, which may or may not give you a saleable story.

Zoe: Plus it’s more enjoyable to tick off the checkbox for “[insert important scene description here] than “2500 words.”

Ana: I remember especially during NaNo feeling like “I have all these words. BUT NOTHING HAPPENS.” And wondering how I managed that.

Zoe: Yes—How to Have a Character Open a Door in 1,200 Words.

Kate: I wonder, if I tried this method this year, could I put a story through NaNo? It’s kind of unfortunate that it happens at a time of year when I’m ridiculously busy, but since I plan to drop the second job this year, it should be doable–if I have the story well plotted.

Ana: Alternatively you could try one of the camps, if November is a bad time for you.

Zoe: Yes, those are April and July.

Kate: July might work.

Ana: For some weird reason though, I always succeed in the November NaNo, but I’ve yet to meet any of the goals I’ve set for camps. (I always end up in demotivating cabins…)

Zoe: I only tried one Camp, and I didn’t make it, but it’s because I wound up having to work on another project to meet a deadline. I’m signed up for April, though.

Kate: We should have a Dirty Birds cabin. “Don’t wipe your feet–we’re all dirty in here.”

Zoe: lol I don’t really like the cabin thing. It’s limiting. For instance, I have a writing group that has a cabin, but I’d also want to be in the Dirty Birds cabin, and they just don’t have that capability. I prefer the November forums to cabins.

Ana: I like November’s buddy system.

Kate: But, does your Buddy have a strong Story Core?

Ana: Depends on the buddy!

Zoe: Speaking of Story Core! 😀 Libbie piqued my interest when she got to the three-legged outline. (Mostly because I wanted to know what the hell a three-legged outline was, but then because it really clicked with me.) The three-legged outline is really, it turns out, the foundation of the story—and it has nothing to do with plotting!

Ana: I like things that don’t have anything to do with plot! But yes, this is why I thought this book would be useful even when not actually outlining a plot.

Kate: I have to say, it gives you tools and organizes them for you. Her Three-Legged Outline really is the basis of a good story. We all know the standard plot for romance, or thriller, or mystery. But it’s the quality of these three parts that make a book stand out, when there’s a dozen others that are technically as well written, with essentially the same plot structure. (I also like that she’s willing to discuss Charlotte’s Web and Lolita in the same sections. 🙂 )

Zoe: I did enjoy her selection of examples—and the fact that she continued with that selection throughout, instead of just picking different books to pull things from at different points.

I think the most useful thing I got out of this book—even if I forget everything else in it—is the character flaw. Not just that the character has to have a flaw, but that that flaw must impact their lives, and how it’s then used through the rest of the story: it’s what determines the external goal, it’s how your character makes his or decisions, and it’s even, to a good extent, what the obstacles arise out of, because the character’s flaw is going to color his or her perception of anything that comes at them.

Kate: When I think back to working out what happened in Bite Me Tender, I started from Levi having to reluctantly hunt his boyfriend to turn him into a werewolf. Why was he reluctant? Because he didn’t want to hurt him–he’d spent a long time learning to control his temper and in order to bite deeply enough, he had to be just a little more angry or out of control than he let himself be. The actual plot grew from that understanding of Levi’s character. And the theme came out as being “cruel to be kind”.

Zoe: I think it unlocked things for me because typically we read about what the character “wants” driving the story, and Libbie backs this up a step further. What a character wants comes out of who he is, and who he is is flawed.

Kate: And usually our strongest wants are tied up in our greatest flaws.

Zoe: YES!

So, recognizing how awesome this way of thinking was, I ran to a blank screen to start working on one of my characters’ flaw. And drew a total blank. I couldn’t even think of any flaws. Google to the rescue! I wound up on a site for personal growth that broke character flaws down to seven main types. At first I thought, “Well, that’s not going to be enough to write more than a few stories from,” but as I figured out which flaw type my character fell under, suddenly I was dashing off all this stuff about her and her flaw—where it came from, how it hinders her, etc. It was this site, and I’ve since used it with several other characters: I think I’ll be keeping it bookmarked for all future outlining.

Ana: It helped me too when you linked it to me. It doesn’t look like much at first, but you can probably fit most characters in there somewhere. And once I knew my character’s flaw, it became easier to figure out my story’s theme, too.

Kate: For anyone who bought Weiland’s book [on outlining], she talks about that somewhere near the end, though it was just a bald list, and not the explanations you find on this website.

Zoe: Oh yes—I remember thinking that section was useless. On the website, you can read about the different strategies people use to live with their flaw, the fears that drive the flaw, the two poles of each flaw (the negative and positive aspects), etc. It’s terribly useful.

Ana: It’s like a cheat sheet for writers. I like cheat sheets.

Zoe: Cheat sheets are good. Forms are bad. Except Libbie’s sneaky form that had me filling out a form. (The whole time going “I can’t believe I’m filling out a form.”) (I actually made a Scrivener template of the form.)

Kate: Lol, that’s hilarious. Libbie must be good, if she can get Zoe to fill out a form. Zoe is form-phobic.

Zoe: Unless it’s a form to claim money… (I’m just going to think of Libbie’s form as a form to claim money.)

Back to the flaw thing and obstacles…my goodness it helped me so much! She didn’t go into a lot of detail about this, but when I looked at the storyline I was working on, it just took things to a whole new level. I have a woman who is in law enforcement in the 1970s. Pre-Libbie, her obstacles were the fact that she was a woman in law enforcement in the 1970s—everything was external. It made for pretty one-dimensional antagonists, because they were just acting roles.

When I worked out her flaw, I saw that she suffered from impatience to get to the same level as the men she worked with. These men have been on the job for a while, they’ve put in the time. But she doesn’t see that. Everything that holds Libbie Lois back, she sees through the lens of sexism, even when her colleagues are actually trying to help her. Now her colleagues don’t have to be one-note characters anymore. They can be inadvertently sexist, but they can also treat her like they would any other trooper, and it doesn’t matter, because of Libbie’s  Lois’s flawed lens.

Kate: The unreliable narrator? Or is she just unreliable to herself?

Zoe: Unreliable to herself. She’s not narrating.

Ana: Your character’s called Libbie too?

Zoe: lol! No, Libbie’s just eating my brain apparently. She’s Lois. (*goes back and fixes*)

Kate: Zoe has a crush on Libbie now. She sees her everywhere.

Zoe: Little bit. She is the only person I’ve fanmailed for a writing craft book.

Ana: She’s the only person who’s made me write an outline. I thought I was outline-resistant.

Zoe: James Scott Bell got me doing an outline…it just wasn’t as effective. But like I said in our last discussion, I think his signposts pair really well with Libbie’s beats. By the time you get to Libbie’s “plot headings,” you really are focusing more on plot stuff, and Bell’s signposts pull some emotional moments back in—like the Pet the Dog signpost and the Mirror Moment.

Kate: We’re going to have to mash these two together and come up with our own Dirty Birds Outlining Book. (Not a Substibook)

Zoe: It’ll be 600 pages long and riddled with chocolate breaks. One thing Libbie’s book and Bell’s book have in common is their conciseness and focus. (Although, by design, Bell talks more about plotting and pantsing throughout his book. He’s attempted to give tips for each type in each section. I can’t say it works all that well. I recommend reading it for the signposts and skipping the plotters and pantsers sections.

Ana: I’ll look into it.

Zoe: (Speaking of chocolate, I have a chocolate eclair the size of a toddler’s head in the fridge right now.)

Ana: :O

Kate: Jealous.

3 thoughts on “Three Dirty Birds and the Story Core

  1. Whaaat! You guys, this is the best review ever! It’s kind of fascinating to watch you three working through the book, and it’s enormously gratifying to see that you’re “getting it” and that my information has been useful to you.

    I haven’t actually read Save the Cat (this might make me an unprofessional writer, possibly) but I’m not surprised that some of the points in my book line up with his. It is pretty standard storytelling stuff, which anybody who nerds out and does deep analysis of tons of stories will notice on their own. But I find it’s useful when these sorts of observations are put into simple, concise terms, and since I couldn’t find a simple, concise book about outlining I thought I’d give it a go. Glad it’s working for some people out there!

    One small request–for the purposes of Google Magic, can you correct the spelling of my last name? I wish I were related to Stephen Hawking, but alas, I am not. Your review is so good that I want people to be able to find Take Off Your Pants easily. 🙂

  2. Thank you, Libbie. And sorry about the spelling! I’ve corrected the post.

    I suppose it *is* pretty standard storytelling stuff, but you made it sound ~simple~ in a way that made me want to have a go at it, instead of my usual response to outlining books which is “Oh God, I don’t want to spend years plotting all this before I can write.” Especially since I’m not one to stick to an outline. But what you said about character made wonder if maybe that’s what was missing from my previous tries at outlining.

    Thanks for commenting! It’s nice to see we’re not pissing off every author we review. 😀

  3. Libbie said: “I find it’s useful when these sorts of observations are put into simple, concise terms, and since I couldn’t find a simple, concise book about outlining I thought I’d give it a go.”

    So glad you did, Libbie! Between your book and James Scott Bell’s last couple, I’m really liking the trend toward focused, to-the-point craft books. (And not just because I could fit about twice of those kinds of books on my shelves, though that helps too. 🙂 )

    I wish Createspace did spiral bound…I’ll be badgering you to do Take of Your Pants in that format.

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