Starting Your Novel – Part 1
(A Special Multi-part report from a Writers Workshop)
By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer
So you want to write a book? Perhaps you’ve already started – and restarted – plenty of times already. Either way, there’s always more to learn when it comes to writing long-form, novel length fiction and nonfiction. When it comes to writing books, it helps to remember that while imagination is the product of talent and desire, discipline and craft is what transforms ideas into cold, hard pages of prose.
Below, the first in a series of reports from a creative writing lecture series I attended a while back. I hope it kick-starts inspiration and leads you on the way to the story of your lifetime.
The Importance of Structure
Fiction is entertainment. Remember that your main goal is to entertain and make the reader feel something. But don’t forget about plot and structure. Structure contains your story while plot moves from one event to the next. In order for your narrative to succeed, every element must be strong – from plot to character to dialogue.
“Literary structure is the evolving sequence of related dramatic events (scenes) that move the story forward and/or reveal character.” John Gardner
For example, when a character speaks they can both reveal a bit of themselves and move the plot forward.
“I know I’m a hypochondriac,” she said, “but I’m really worried about those tests at the hospital next week.”
Structure requires a setup, a build up and a pay off. For the set up, you introduce the characters, the basic environment and the situation or dilemma they face. During the build up, you expound on the event and challenges the characters face and overcome (or fail to overcome). The payoff is the resolution of the situation or dilemma you initially introduced. It doesn’t have to be a satisfactory conclusion (life’s resolutions are seldom neatly tied up in bows), but your reader shouldn’t feel as if the initial concerns that drew him or her in have been completely abandoned by the character.
The basic detective story is a great way to see structure at work. Initially there’s a crime, and the hero (the detective) is introduced. His dilemma: solve the crime. As the story progresses, the detective will search for leads, investigate motives and interact with other characters. His actions and thoughts about these events will flesh him out as a character, while the minor characters come alive through their dialogue and the main character’s perceptions of their actions (“He’s suspicious.” “She’s hiding something.”) The story ends when the crime has been solved (or, sometimes, when it is truly unsolvable), the suspect is imprisoned (or murdered, or gets away), and the detective is on to his next case – perhaps a little wiser, nursing a broken heart (or a bullet wound).
When your novel begins, the set up should be crafted in a way that best hooks the reader. It’s helpful to think in terms of velocity – how can you launch the story and capture the attention of your audience so that they’re willing to buckle up and enjoy the ride? Now’s the time to set up plot expectations and parcel out some clues (or intriguing motivations) about where this story’s headed. Establish the goals and movies of the major characters. Remember that most characters want something –and they want it badly.
During the build-up, the characters will now be acting or reacting to the plot’s movement. It’s time to explore how the characters intend to get what they want and to portray their actions as well as their successes and failures. Through the course of the story, their goals may change or morph into something bigger or smaller, but there should always be a motivation. This is also your opportunity to delve deeper into the inner life of your characters – who are they really? What happened in their past that continues to influence their thoughts and behaviors? What’s going on in their own acre?
Ultimately, though, all of these actions must lead up to a resolution. This can sometimes be the toughest part. You may have started out knowing where you were headed, but the journey’s changed some of the goal posts and revealed aspects of your main characters you’d never imagined when you first conceived them. Some minor characters might suddenly spring up as main protagonists, other may end up dying (or earning a reprieve). In order for a book’s final moments to succeed, the ending must be credible and satisfying, with all major issues resolved.
But no pressure…
You can develop the structure as you move along, or start outlining before you ever begin that first paragraph. But just like the best journeys are the ones where you get lost or wander off the map, in the end you always reach a destination – even you end in a place you never know you were always meant to find.