CRAFT: Structuring Your Novel

*tap tap* Is this thing on? My friendslist has been so quiet, and hardly any comments are coming in.
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A story or poem is a vehicle. It’s an SUV (or a Harley, in the case of a short poem) that’s poised for a ride into the imagination, if you will. Any kind of conveyance has to be designed and constructed, doesn’t it? It needs wheels, a chassis, a transmission, comfy seats, a steering wheel, a Guideas rod, etc. These have to be put together properly so the power goes through the drive train. Only then can the vehicle take us on the journey it’s meant to travel. A written creation has some similarities to that other kind of vehicle.

{As ever, take the following with a cellarful of salt, as I am a nothing and a loser and a nobody who is finally beginning to be able to accept that I won’t sell a novel, ever, for fundamental reasons. Maybe some of this stuff that I learned back in the days when I “believed” so strongly will help someone who isn’t doomed. That’s why I’m posting it.}
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I thought I’d touch on the structure of a novel. A few people have expressed their doubts and concerns about using a screenwriting paradigm (or any other template that’s relatively specific) to help structure a novel. If you’re using this to examine the structure of a novel you’re writing, and not trying to use it to build one as if with TinkerToys from nothing but a paradigm, I think it can only be helpful.

I still believe that what agents and editors have been telling me (in their ways) is that they want A STRONG PLOT or STORYLINE. Plot/storyline is the MOST IMPORTANT BIT OF ALL. Characterization is good, but everything must serve the story.

I read novels for the voice–for a tour of the author’s mind–and so that I can live vicariously through the characters. Part of this is the fun of pretending that I have a best friend, a supportive community, job X like the heroine, and so forth. I always really enjoy the community. Very often, I skip past the sex scenes because I already *know* how it’s done; when I was twelve and curious but naive, I went off and read Judy Blume (_Forever_ and _Wifey_ were pretty explicit and quite illuminating) and Henry Miller (_Tropic of Capricorn_), and then I grew up and had experiences of my own that pretty much explained it. How many ways can one ski down a mountain, anyway? But of course I am NOT typical, as I have often said, and there are a lot of people who want to read about your trips down the mountain. However, any scene that makes me laugh and feel a kind of kinship as it develops between characters I am likely to re-read. The plot should be interesting, but isn’t as important as the scenes that I enjoy experiencing. This is most likely a source of many of my problems in selling fiction.

So I have never seen things the way that these particular agents/editors are telling me that they see them, but anyway, if the ones in power DO see things this way, then we must re-examine our attitudes towards freedom of structure in novels.
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Most novels have four major turning points/plot points.

The inciting incident happens early on, providing the “prod” or Call to Adventure for your hero(ine).

The first plot point is a turning point/climax that is generally a reversal: the hero(ine)’s efforts have had effects other than the desired effects, and things aren’t going as they should. The stakes of the contest are raised.

The Black Moment happens about three-quarters into the book; everything seems hopeless. (Think my career.) All is lost, and the lead characters feel like giving up, but they can’t; they’ve got to get a second wind and give it one last ol’ college try for the Gipper.

The remainder of the book is the resolution–be it a race to the finish line, a validation of the heroine’s efforts, the recovery of the Holy Grail, or the resolution of the romance.

If agents/editors don’t see your story moving forward with each scene, each scene building on the events/thoughts in the previous and leading towards the next, they won’t want your book. Perhaps it’s better to spell out stuff rather than assume that readers see these connections, though it’s risky either way until you are a known quantity to them and have earned their trust. Otherwise, they can say, “You’re not going anywhere with this,” when you could point out how you HAVE taken it somewhere, but there’s no point in arguing with them. They want to see a chain of causality, and motivations should be clear, even if only implied.
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Here are some things you should know about your book soon after you’ve gotten it started (perhaps you wrote chapter one, or you wrote an outline, or you have a couple of chapters and a few scattered scenes in mind.)

Whose story is this? That character should experience the majority of the scenes IN PERSON (rather than hearing about them third-hand from a messenger or getting a phone call about what happened offstage, with a few exceptions). Most scenes should be from this character’s POV. If other scenes are from another character’s POV, most readers will experience this character as a second hero/heroine. The days of Dr. Watson telling the story for Sherlock are pretty much past in commercial fiction, methinks, as this would lead to an accusation of a “passive watcher” POV character–anathema now.

Is your dialogue believable? It can’t be just like real life–you have to leave out the boring parts, the “how are you/I’m fine” stuff, the repetitiveness. You can’t have “As you know, Bob,” stuff. You don’t want characters to tell one another stuff they should already know, even as a “reminder.” Your characters should each sound distinctive. Does each character sound like you, or do they sound like different people (themselves)?

If you can tell who said it without having to have a “said” tag, you’re doing it perfectly.

What makes each of your characters distinct? Characters who are not the leads (hero and heroine) should be there for their own reasons and have motivations of their own, not just to serve the plot and act as foils (although they do that, too.) The social community of the book is as important as the setting. Sometimes the setting acts as another implied character. (Texas, the Southwest, Alaska, Paris, NYC, and other distinctive places seem to have lives of their own.)

I am always in favor of having a fascinating community that the reader gets to vicariously experience while reading ANY novel that isn’t one of those really sad ones where everyone dies. You watched “Seinfeld” and “Friends” for the characters, not the nonexistent and silly plots “about nothing,” if you watched them. . . .

Classic/older movies made in the Golden Age tend to have stock characters that we don’t see any more very often in film or in books . . . you know, the older couple who’s helpful (like in the film “Holiday,” with the Edward Everett Horton character and his wife), the “Crone/Mother” older woman as wise-woman character, the aunt or uncle who shows the lead characters which aspects of life they are neglecting, etc. Those used to deepen a story for me, and it also made work for actors who were past the magic youth of thirty. I suppose the audience has changed, though, in expecting everyone in a film or in a book to be “young,” whatever that is nowadays. Look at the dominance of teen lit and teen “chick lit.” Or has that ALWAYS been true, and I just wasn’t looking? It’s the demographic they want to appeal to.

*ahem* Back to your book.

Have you found your voice and worked with it? Are you trying to sound like someone else? Usually you shouldn’t, but when you’re starting out, it does help to have someone to model yourself on.

What do you want to accomplish with your book? How does it illuminate the eternal human condition? Did you try to teach anything with it (without being heavy-handed or sentimental)? OR did you set out solely to entertain? (Typically, even if you thought you were merely entertaining, the book has a theme and a “point.”)

Some readers like to learn something with each book. Others will not feel fulfilled after having spent a lot of time reading something that was entertainment ONLY. “South Park,” for example, is NOT entertainment-only. Even “Family Guy” is philosophical as well as surrealistic. There is ALWAYS a message and an anti-message, sardonic or tongue-in-cheek or ridiculous as it may seem. But a definite “theme” suffuses even the silliest episodes. There must be some reason your reader read the book. What was the POINT of all that?
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Each scene must have a purpose other than JUST advancing character and being entertaining. It should illuminate a theme and advance the plot. Some people use a Goal/Motivation/Conflict rule of thumb to test each scene, or make up “scene cards” on 3×5 cards and check scenes that way. The overall book should have a large structure that’s got a final goal/real motivations/conflicts, but each scene is also ideally a microcosm of that structure. Don’t overthink this or your scenes can become mechanical, but here are the definitions used in G/M/C scene building.

Goal: Each character must strive for something; the main chracters must strive for some grab-ring that isn’t easily attained. This gives them purpose. It’s important to note that the goal they have in the beginning can change. The ultimate goal could be the inverse of the original, or could be completely (seemingly) unrelated.

Motivation: Each character needs a logical reason that seems rational to readers as to why your character is willing to put himself through all of this stuff rather than just walking away. Readers should have an inkling (perhaps from subtext, perhaps from interior monologue, perhaps from stated stuff in dialogue) of this motivation throughout so we know why the character is persisting.

Conflict: What’s preventing your hero(ine) from achieving these goals easily? If everyone just caves and says, “Sure,” the story isn’t going to work. Conflict occurs in both the external action plot and the internal character growth story.
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You’ll probably want others to take a look at your manuscript.

I always want to ask readers: What is the story as you see it? (People sometimes tell me a completely different storyline from the one I envisioned.) Are the characters credible? Is the setting vivid enough? And so on.

What I get: This word bugs me. I hate the name “Berengaria.” Why would she have a job like that one? Why don’t you let her get laid and write more sex scenes?

Workshops and creative writing courses tend to flatten out the playing field and remove all quirks and interesting turns of phrase, destroying at least one aspect of voice. They often create writers who all read and sound the same. The no-style style is in now. Chick lit had its moment in the sun. Now it’s teen-blog style that gets all the attention. I don’t know the answer to this, except that they always claim they want something fresh and new, and then they’ll reject it by saying they can’t figure out how to pitch it and that it doesn’t fit any of the genres properly.

“The purpose of a writers’ workshop is to make all future pieces of writing better. It can only do this by enabling the writer to become a better self-critic. The pieces of writing submitted serve as samples to practice on and nothing more. They are of more benefit to the other participants than to the writer. And like anything we might use to practice on, there is a distinct possibility that they will be damaged in the process.”–Gerard Beirne

“Writing takes something abstract (emotional) and conveys it to the reader through something concrete (words) producing an abstract response (emotional).”–again, Gerard Beirne

Wow . . . it’s like analog/digital/analog, for my fellow engineers. Do we have signal loss? Do we have a poor signal-to-noise ratio? If we do, then we’ve lost clarity and need to file down those rough edges.

Set out on an adventure to find out what it is you want to write. It shouldn’t be based on what is selling now. My chick lit novel would probably have sold if I’d had it ready when the first pink covers hit the shelves. But who can say what’ll be in style a year from now?

Begin freewriting. See what transpires and try to make something out of it. What is the most interesting thing to you in/about this piece? Follow that lead. Create what it wants to be.

Good luck on your journey.

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Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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