A few years ago I wrote a handout for the local participants of National Novel Writing Month and I thought I’d share it here. In the coming weeks I’ll likely break down some of these sections and go into more detail, but for today, here is a quick and simple overview.
A General Overview of What to Consider When Writing a Novel
Before being writers, we are readers, and as readers we absorb a lot of the necessary components for writing a novel. We know a good story when we read one, and, since we are all here to write, we probably all have a good story to tell. The trick is to take that idea for a story and translate it into words on a page. I think that, as readers, we intrinsically understand many of the ‘rules’ of storytelling, so my goal with this handout is to help bring these rules/components to the front of your brain. Then, I want you to ignore all of it and just write your first draft with abandon. Once you write The End, you might be surprised to discover how many of these ‘rules’ you followed without concentrating on them.
The Basic Story Components of a Novel:
- A beginning, a middle, and an end (Typically in that order, but not always.)
- A problem or obstacle that must be overcome
- Characters who are forced to grow and change by the conflicts presented by that obstacle
- A place/world/time for this action to happen and your characters to interact in
The Basic Technical Components of a Novel:
Okay, those are very basic lists, and there is a little overlap, but I think this is a good spring board to start from.
If you already have a story idea, you probably have at least a general notion of who you’re writing about (character) the world that character will be in (setting) and what your character will be doing (plot) but lets explore these components in a little more depth.
PLOT is all of the action and progression of your story. Your main plot is the big goal/problem/obstacle of your story. Conflict should drive the plot and must challenge the character(s) so he/she is forced to progress through stages to be overcome (if your character overcomes) the issue. [If you are writing a mystery, the main plot is the detective’s journey to discover ‘who-dunnit’. In a romance, the main plot is the evolution of the relationship between the hero and heroine. In a fantasy, the main plot might be the steps of the character’s quest to XX. etc.] Plots should arc, starting with the inciting incident, leading to rising tension that keeps growing up to the black moment and climax and then tapers down into the resolution.
CHARACTERS are the people on your written stage. You will likely have only a couple main characters (or only one) and several supporting characters. How do you decide who are your main characters? Well, ‘screen time’ will be a major indicator, but also your main character(s) is the person whose story you are telling. Your plot and character should be so intertwined, that the conflict drives him to move, to act (and act he does. A character should be proactive, not only reactive, to the events of the plot.) Characters need to be properly motivated to move through the plot and the stakes must be big/personal enough that he can’t just walk away from it.
SETTING is where and when your story is set. For this general discussion, it is also the rules of the world your characters are interacting in. You might be thinking this only matters to fantasy writers, but do give thought to your setting. A small town verses a big city affects everything from how your character gets around to how many people she passes on the street that she knows. Your characters perceptions of what are around them can create great characterization while setting your world solidly in your readers mind. Setting can also set the tone, mood of your story.
On to the more technical parts of story…
SCENES are the building block of your plot. Think of them as snapshots of the story. Each scene is like a mini story and should contain change. If something about your character, their goals, or their knowledge base hasn’t changed, the scene hasn’t accomplished anything. Good scenes should grip the reader and hold on forcing the character on with new goals or leave them with only bad choices that have to be made. That said, good pacing includes a releasing and tightening of that tension periodically throughout the story. (Think of your reader as a rubber band, you can only pull them so far before they snap, and you don’t want that snap to occur until the black moment/climax, so you give them a little slack here and there) There is no ‘perfect’ pacing technique or trick to learn it. Certain things will help slow down or speed up pacing: (and this is not a complete list)
To slow down pacing use:
-Humor. It breaks tension and thus will slow down pacing
-introspection or long passages of description
To speed up pacing use:
-shorter sentences. This will create a fast rhythm to your writing.
-More white space on the page. Pages will literally turn faster.
-Less description and less introspection.
POV is probably one of the most discussed and debated topics in the writing loops I belong to. POV, which stands for Point of View, refers to who the story is filtered through.
– With 1st person pov the story is told completely inside the head of the character using the pronoun ‘I’. This is a very immediate POV, but the reader can only see/know what the view point character knows. Example: I opened the door.
– 2nd person pov is not in common use currently, but think choose your own adventures in which the reader is addressed directly. Example: You open the door.
– 3rd is probably one of the most common POVs. It uses the pronouns he/she and think of it as a camera lens, zooming in and out. It can hover around one character’s head, making it her POV despite using ‘she’, and occasionally dipping into her head for a deep POV. Or the camera can be pulled very far back, giving us and omniscient POV. Example: He opened the door.
If you are writing from multiple characters’ POV, it is a good idea to use only one POV per scene (point of contention) to avoid head hopping and jarring the reader. If you are trying to decide which character the scene needs to be written from, try to figure out who has the most at stake, the most to lose, in the scene—that will typically be your guy.
TENSE is simply whether you are writing in present or past tense. This has to do with your choice of verbs. (He ran to the store. Vs He runs to the store.) Speaking of verbs, watch out for passive verbs, and for weak verbs like forms of ‘to be’ (which can’t be completely avoided, but 3 our of 5 times it is better to say “He sat” than “He was sitting”.)
Today I will wrap this up by repeating that this is all very general information, and now that you’ve thought about it—don’t worry about it. At least not in your first draft. If you guys are interested, Next time I’ll focus deeper on some of these topics. Just let me know what you’d like me to expand on!
(**Note. There are exceptions to every rule, and I’m sure we can all name books that don’t conform to anything in this handout. Think of these rules as the pirates’ code—as in more guidelines than rules. Some rules are made to be broken, but make sure you break them intentionally and not from a lack of understanding.)