Noveling 101–A snapshot overview of writing

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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.

 

Noveling 101

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:

    • Scenes
    • POV
    • Tense

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

-longer sentences.

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.)

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11 comments to Noveling 101–A snapshot overview of writing

  • Great overview, Kalayna. Lots of good stuff.

  • Gypsyharper

    I like this overview a lot. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the detailed (and wonderful!) information about writing out there, so it’s nice to have something more basic like this to come back to. And the reminder to just put it in the back of your mind and write is important also. Thanks!

  • […] this entry interested in eaking out a novel (or more) and are just getting started, here’s a Noveling 101 post from the Magical Words site, written by Kalayna Price (with four novels out and a […]

  • Glad it was helpful Gypsy!

  • Dan

    Thanks for the post, Kalayna. I’m rewriting my novel, and as a beginner I’m struggling to get my head around this stuff. This really helped bring some problems into focus. The part about each scene containing some growth or whatnot seems particularly hard for me to grasp, especially as it pertains to my romantic subplot. That thing is a mess. Sigh.

    I think I might prefer a slightly different take on the idea that “Characters…are forced to grow and change by the conflicts”, though. It sounds like the idea that adversity builds character, which has never sat well with me. I don’t believe “that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”. I prefer to think that character gets one through adversity, not that it is created by it. So I will have to try to think of some other way of conceptualizing this.

  • Dan

    Oh, and I really like how you say to throw these and other rules out the window for the first draft. That’s a really helpful reminder.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you, Kalayna. This is a very timely post as I’m working on putting together something like an outline for a new story idea. However, it very clearly points out one my biggest troubles, which is getting a handle on the primary conflict/plot. In my main WIP, I have the big-backdrop conflict, a secret-agenda conflict, and then goals/conflicts for each of three MCs, which often seem to be going sideways w.r.t. the larger conflicts. The story that I initially day-dreamed about was primarily about the secret-agenda conflict, but to tell an engaging story I know I need to focus on the individual character conflicts. Do you have any suggestions for juggling multiple scales of and/or multiple POV conflicts?

    @Dan: If I may, I suggest that you search this site for a past post that discusses “Vernor’s Law”, which is used to more thoroughly describe the elements that make for a successful scene. I’ve found those posts and that rule of thumb very useful for thinking about scenes.

    However, I’d also like to both agree and disagree with you about character. In some ways, I very much agree with you that adversity can be used to *reveal* character, and that, as we are all individuals, the ways in which we respond to adversity must also be individual. However, I also think that there are two basic components to our personalities: our emotional responses to things, and our logical responses. Every individual will have proclivities toward certain emotional responses, optimistic vs. pessimistic, etc., though these can be changed to some extent (e.g., PTSD). But when I think of someone’s morally-defined character, I associate that more closely with one’s logical responses, or at the very least, the coupling between emotional and logical response. By their very nature, our logical responses are directly teachable. We learn from our mistakes what works in certain situations and what doesn’t (though not everyone learns the same lessons). We adopt moral views, which may change as our experience in the world changes. We grow.

  • Razziecat

    Weighing in on the character/adversity thing: Dan, I agree that character gets one through adversity (or not—depends on the person), but one’s character should also grow and develop over time. For me, a story has much more depth, as well as entertainment value, if the MC learns, grows and changes in dealing with adversity. A person who remains static throughout upheaval is kinda boring, to me at least. If nothing else, I like to see some doubts and uncertainty as the MC’s beliefs and values are challenged. Even if they ultimately reaffirm these values, they usually learn something from the struggle, and that makes the story more compelling for me. But, of course, as has been said before–YMMV! :)

  • Dan

    Razziecat: I agree with you that people should grow over the course of the story; at least that’s part of what makes a story enjoyable to me, too. I just don’t think that adversity makes people grow, so that the writer must throw adversity at characters to make them grow. I think the people make themselves grow. And that the writer throws adversity at the characters to imperil them, and the reader gets worried that they might not be able to grow and make the right response, and roots for them to grow. Or something like that. I am still figuring out how to explain my take on it. Like you said, though, YMMV and I’m not trying to convince anyone my take is right or anything, including Kalayna. Hepseba, thanks for the tip on Vernor’s Law, I will check it out. As for the growth thing: I think we understand it in different ways, but that’s fine. That’s what’s cool about art: it’s self-expression and you get to make your story according to your own tastes.

  • Thanks everyone. This has been a very interesting discussion on character. I started to write out a response and realized it was getting long–like post long. So I’ll definitely write a post on character in the coming weeks.