Welcome back to our series on novel writing basics. Last time I discussed the importance of creating and fleshing out your cast of characters, and I ended with advice on how to choose the right point in time to start your story.
I’m going to begin this installment by discussing the importance of having an organized timeline for your novel. The more complex or expansive your story line, the greater the need to outline or map out the story’s events. This is especially true if your story spans a considerable period of time (be it months or years or decades). Oddly enough, if you’ve chosen to pack your story into a few days’ time, it’s even more important that you have a detailed map, because things will likely be happening very fast (and perhaps several subplots will be running along with the main one). You need to keep track of everything to ensure it all works together and that you don’t have events happening out of logical sequence.
The overall events in my first novel, More Than Magick spanned four years, but I pretty much dismissed those four years in the first two chapters. Starting with chapter three, the main story took place over the course of a few days. Now, I admit that I did not map all of this out. I wrote it seat of the pants. That’s fine if it’s your first novel and you have a good memory. But later in your writing career, when you could be working on or thinking about multiple projects, you’ll need organization to keep them all straight.
Another advantage to having a story map is that it allows you to see possible stumbling points before you actually get to writing them. Potential slow spots in the narrative or even plot inconsistencies will become apparent before they become a problem. In general, the more time your novel spans and the more characters you have, the more you need that outline. If you think about TV series that tell a tight, ongoing story (such as “Prison Break” or “24” or “Lost”) then you’ll appreciate the need for that roadmap. Even series such as “Smallville” had to be sure that the overall events of Clark Kent’s life and how the various characters came together. Of course, TV series have multiple writers who can brainstorm solutions, while you’re just one person.
With an outline, it’s also easier to ensure that your story builds tension and complications as it goes along. You can save yourself a lot of headaches later by working out the issues in a shorter form.
That said, we can now begin the novel itself. It can seem like a daunting task for a writer to realize that he or she has to write tens of thousands of words and to wonder where all those words will come from. Back in school, we quaked at the thought of a thousand-word essay or a ten-page term paper, and now we have to write hundreds of pages? Scary indeed. But it need not be.
If you’ve properly organized your thoughts (via some sort of outline), this won’t be as hard as it might appear. By this time, you should have at least your main characters laid out and a good starting point for the story. Don’t worry about those hundreds of pages and thousands of words. Begin with chapter one. Take a look at your outline. Perhaps do a detailed one for just the first chapter, giving a summary of what you want to include in it. It should launch into the story with setting, character, and initial conflict, set up questions for the reader, and end on a high note that makes the reader one to turn the page to learn what happens next.
Above all, do NOT clutter the first chapter with too much information. Avoid backstory and flashbacks unless they’re quick memories from the character. You shouldn’t be TELLING the reader information, but instead let him discover it naturally by SHOWING him what’s happening. In a future blog, Scott and I will go into detail about doing this effectively, but a good rule to follow is to imagine your novel is a movie being watched by your reader. How can you let the reader SEE what’s taking place without directly telling him every detail? Of course, you will need to tell a few things because it is, after all, a novel, not a movie.
Use the senses. Don’t say the character heard a loud noise. Be specific. Was the noise like a blaring horn, an explosion, a crash of thunder, the cracking of wood, a dull thud, a racing motorcycle? Don’t say it was a beautiful sunset. Paint the colors in vivid, but brief, terms. ENGAGE THE READER IN THE SCENE and let him see and feel it as the character sees and feels it. Let the reader know how it affects the character. If you do your job well, you’ll have your reader hooked. And if you end the chapter on that high note, you’ll have given your reader a novel he wants to continue reading.
Then do the same with chapter two, and three, building the story to its conclusion. If you approach your novel a scene or chapter at a time, you’ll find it less of an effort.
That reminds me of a question I often get from new authors: how long should a chapter be? There is no easy answer, but my advice is to treat the chapter as a short story. It should have a beginning, middle, and end. Except in this case, the ending will often be the lead-in to the next chapter or the introduction of some new aspect or question. I like to give each chapter a purpose. Maybe it introduces a new character or subplot. Maybe it also wraps up a previous subplot or answers an earlier story question. After you finish a chapter, ask yourself what it accomplished for the story. Did it have a clear, set purpose?
Some chapters will simply be a continuation of the previous chapter, but the difference is what happens at that break between them. A chapter break should never make the reader feel as if that’s a good place to stop. A well-composed novel will make the reader want to continue with the next chapter. It should be the reader’s decision to stop there because he’s done reading for now, not the author telling the reader it’s a good place to stop.
Chapter length? Because readers do like to have stopping points, rather than stopping in the middle of the chapter, shorter chapters tend to be better than longer ones. I like mine to be 10-20 pages. Your mileage may vary, depending on what’s required by your story.
Should you start a new chapter for each new scene? Not necessarily. Some authors write one scene per chapter; others put in multiple scenes. There are no set rules. If you follow the principle I’ve outlined and give each chapter a set purpose, you’ll be better able to make those decisions. Some chapters may require multiple scenes to accomplish their purpose.
I also promised that I’d talk about the five narrative forms of fiction in this installment. They are: description, exposition, dialog, thoughts, action. Good writing will generally strike a balance among these. I’m not saying that you should devote 20% of the writing to each one. In fact, most fiction will contain between 50% and 75% dialog. There are exceptions, of course.
DESCRIPTION tells the reader what he’s seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting feeling (in the sense of touch). To repeat from above, good description shows by letting the reader experience with the senses rather than being simply told.
EXPOSITION is the conveying of information. Done poorly, it can stop a story dead in its tracks–and this is often what happens when new writers fail to understand the difference between show and tell. However, done properly and balanced with the other narrative forms, it can build tension and interest. As an aside, I should point out that some telling is always necessary. It’s impossible to show everything–and some things should simply be told and not dragged out as showing. The careful writer will reserve exposition for those times when there is no better way to convey the information. Don’t use dialog to explain to the reader since that can come off as what’s referred to as “talking heads.”
DIALOG is two or more characters talking to each other. Good dialog will either advance the story or characterize the speaker, and the best will do both. If your dialog passage doesn’t do one of these, you should reexamine why it’s there. In truth, each line should have a purpose, not be merely filler.
THOUGHTS are internal dialog by a character. Thoughts can be direct (and are usually italicized):
I wonder what did last night.
What did she do last night?
Or indirect (and not italicized):
I wondered what she was doing last night.
What was she doing last night?
A detailed discussion on the proper use of thoughts will be the topic for a future post. One caution about direct thoughts is that too much italicized material can annoy readers because it’s harder to read, so when you need extensive thoughts, indirect ones may be a better option.
ACTION. You might think that action is merely a combination of the other four narrative modes. In some ways it is because you need to explain and describe what’s going on, but the difference is that something is happening along with it, as opposed to static description and explanation.
For those interested, there’s a Wikipedia article that subdivides and expands these five forms somewhat: Fiction Writing Modes
Good writing will strike a balance among these five forms. As I said above, this doesn’t mean 20% of each. It means not overdoing any one of them at a time, or at least rarely. Too much action is just as bad as too much exposition. And overbalancing is bad as well. For example, I’ve seen some writers alternate lines of dialog with lines of exposition. This might work for a short scene, but consider the following:
John lit a cigarette. “What’s our next step?”
Mary took a sip of her wine. “I’m not sure.”
He inhaled, held it, and blew a smoke ring. “Maybe we should forget about the project.”
She set the glass down forcefully, splashing wine onto the tablecloth. “You must be joking.”
He held the cigarette over the ashtray. “I’m serious.”
She sighed. “I’ve never known you to give up.”
He stubbed out the cigarette. “Then this is a first.”
Under the right circumstances and in the hands of a skillful writer, such a short scene could be extremely effective. Done badly, carried on for too long, or done repeatedly throughout a novel, such scenes could annoy many readers. This is where the writer must learn proper balance of the narrative forms.
I’ve given you a lot to think about, so I’ll close there. In the weeks ahead, we’ll continue to share our wisdom, interspersed with other blog posts that we trust you will find of interest.