The moment I hit the ‘publish’ on The Top Ten (Hidden) Elements of Novels, I ground my teeth.
Two more additions popped into my mind. Rather than amend the post, I figured I’d drop them into a new one. They are:
Cliffhangers have come a long way from the days of ‘join us next week when we find out if our hero will survive the…’ Cliffhangers have evolved to help shape a story, to pose a question or throw in a twist at the end of a chapter that begs to be discovered. Sometimes it’s as simple as having something intrude into a scene before all the questions can be fully answered, giving people a reason to read on. If you’re subtle enough, people won’t even realise there’s a cliffhanger there, they’ll just have a burning desire to continue reading.
Buttons? Seriously? Yup, buttons. If you’re lacking that killer cliffhanger ending to a chapter, a button is another way to draw a reader on. A button is a simple sentence – sometimes a comment, sometimes a bit of dialogue, sometimes even a joke. It can be anything from… ‘Thunder boomed in the distance, an ominous sound to match her growing unease’, to ‘You might be right, but you’re still ugly’. Whatever grabs attention, draws a smile or gives a sense of continuity – the assurance that there’s more to come and it’s only going to get better.
It took me a long time to figure out there was more to writing a novel than creating a hero with a problem, and playing it out over the loose scaffolding of a beginning, middle, and end.
1. Conflict and Threat
Internal, external and interpersonal conflict is essential to your story, and each has an entirely different impact on how events play out. While conflict is not the same as a story’s threat, it’s often tied into it in some way. Threat is the potential. Conflict is immediate. You need to work them out and incorporate them.
The emotional needs, desires and problems for your characters, which if done well (and combined with the story’s threat and conflicts), will generate empathy among your readers and lead to an unputdownable page-turner. Character is story, and for a story to work your characters need to care (desperately) about something.
A novel needs a deeper meaning, and that meaning is a concept neatly wrapped up in a slippery little word called ‘theme’. Theme isn’t something along the lines of love or sacrifice or hope – at best those are expressions of a theme. No. Theme is a statement – with your story acting as the stage to debate it.
Beginnings, middles and ends seem so simple – but each part needs to achieve something very specific. Believe it or not, the beginning of your novel isn’t actually the beginning of your story – it’s the introduction to your characters and their world. The story starts when the beginning’s over, because that’s when the protagonist leaves their comfortable world – by choice or otherwise.
5. Middle A
The middle makes up half your novel and is divided into two parts. The first part (Middle A) lets your protagonist discover what they’re really in for. It’s the fun part of your story, culminating in the realisation that there’s no easy option – and certainly no turning back.
6. Middle B
The third quarter (Middle B) is where things get serious and everything they’ve been striving for falls apart. This is where you raise the stakes to the point where all is lost, climaxing with some sort of false victory or defeat that sets the scene for the final battle.
To conclude your novel, your hero(s) regroup, form a plan and take the actions that eventually see them reach a satisfying resolution (or, at least, it better be satisfying if you want people to recommend it to their friends). It helps to tie up loose ends and if necessary, set the scene for sequels.
If you’ve never heard about sequences, look them up. They’re mini-stories within the bigger story, often spanning several chapters – like how a character becomes a werewolf, or how a couple meet. There needs to be an equal number of sequences too, the total divisible by four and divided into the beginning, middle A, middle B, and end.
9. The Premise
Whatever else you do, make sure you meet the promise of your story’s premise. If you promise a story about a girl trying to survive assassins, everything that happens must contribute to setting up, sustaining and resolving that promise.
10. Cause & Effect
Even when you think you have everything right, writing a Cause and Effect can pick up problems. Every cause must generate an effect, and every effect has to lead to a new cause. Look hard at your story and if necessary rework it to create an unbroken chain of effects from beginning to end.
I’m a pantser – I like to start with an idea, concept, character, situation, whatever, and see where it leads.
Writing a novel for me is an exploration. Plotters do the opposite – they discover everything they can before they write, or at least enough to be happy to write.
Quite often I won’t have a clue what a story’s about or where its going until I’ve written it, which is fine in its way, but really makes it hard to edit without an ingrained knowledge of story structure.
The best solution I’ve found is that with a bit of pre-thinking, I can generate the key points I’d like to hit while writing, so my story comes out with all the right elements in the right place.
I won’t necessarily stick to whatever ‘pre-writing points’ I generate, but if I know them in advance I can change them as needed.
So, if you’re a pantser, study up on story structure. Even if you don’t sit down and prepare before writing something, it helps to know what your story’s going to need.
Ian generously moderated the CSFG novel critique group this year, offering invaluable advice to each participant. Here’s what he had to say about the experience and his writing.
Q: You began running the CSFG Novel Critique Group this year. As you have your own novel in development, how are you applying this experience to your work?
I think the big lessons I’ve taken from this year’s crit circle are (1) the importance of giving the novel good structural bones and (2) the importance of fully developing characters, including their motivations, pressure points, relationships and mannerisms.
While plotting hasn’t been a weakness of any of this year’s manuscripts in terms of plot holes or internal inconsistency, the need for plots to build tension and offer some surprises has been a recurrent theme.
Going hand-in-hand with this is the need for major characters to be both active and instrumental in confronting the problems of the plot, and for a sufficient level of sadism towards one’s characters – you have to hurt them because you love them.
Q: Your critiques suggest your core strength as a writer comes from your intuitive understanding of character. How does this affect the way you offer feedback, particularly in regard to conceptual-based (ideas/plot driven) stories?
Funny you should say that. I like to think that in my short stories I generally create distinctive characters who drive the story, although I wouldn’t go so far as to call it my core strength.
In my first novel, I’ve found that I’ve struggled a bit to sustain that distinctiveness and roundedness across a larger cast of characters and staying with them for so much longer.
I’ve also tended to let my created world, in wanting it to be a character itself, overwhelm the human characters at times.
So I think, rather, that my focus on characters in critiques reflects the focus of my own struggles, rather than my strengths.
Q:Your credentials as a short story writer are well-established after winning the Writers of the Future Contest. What are/were your greatest challenges in writing a novel compared with a short story, and what would you do differently next time?
Sustaining the story for so much longer and over a broader canvas. Next time I’ll write – am writing – a shorter, simpler novel.
Q: Character is story, but story needs structure. How do you approach the structural needs of a novel-length story?
Haphazardly, at the first attempt, and with a rising sense of panic.
I’ve got a lot of value out of the structural stuff we’ve done in the CSFG novel writing group this year, for both long and short form stories – particularly understanding structural archetypes and having planning tools to map character wants/needs/actions/suffering to the story’s plot.
I think a couple of other factors are really important too: (1) knowing how much you can chew before you bite, and (2) having confidence in what you know about your story.
I didn’t do either of these first time through.
Q: Do you intend to run the novel critique group next year, and do you intend to submit your own novel? If so, what would you be looking to get out of it?
I think I’ll run it if I have a novel ready to submit for it – or at least am far enough progressed that I can finish the manuscript to a deadline next year.
If I put in a novel, then I’ll be hoping for some signposts to a better second draft.
I think the novel critiquing group is a really valuable part of what CSFG offers to its members so I think keeping that going is an end in itself. I was happy to support that this year without putting up a novel of my own.
That said, if I don’t have a novel ready next year, I’ll pass the baton and focus on my own writing.
Q: If you could give any advice to an aspiring novelist, what would it be?
I’d offer one piece of advice that I did follow and one that I failed to.
The first is: learn the art of storytelling by writing short stories first. Ray Bradbury said this, and I thoroughly agree.
I think short stories give a writer enormous scope to experiment with and learn how to handle different characters, worlds, plots and styles.
Stephen Dedman once said to me that you can learn 12 times as much if you write 12 short stories in a year as if you write one novel, and I think he’s right.
I think that even if a writer’s first novel is a success and easy to write, the next one or the one after that may not be.
If you’ve given yourself the best possible grounding in short stories first, you’ll have more tools available to write yourself out of trouble. (And also, you can use short stories as world-building and character-building tools for a novel idea, while at the same time creating a marketable product that will hopefully give you some sort of record of publication to mention to publishers once the novel is written.)
The second thing, that I failed to abide by, is: don’t underestimate how big a leap it is from short stories to novels.
While you’ll learn a lot from short stories, there’s still more to learn in taking the step up to writing novels. Learning what it is before you leap in can save a lot of heartache.
Ian McHugh is a 2006 graduate of the Clarion West writers’ workshop. His first success as a speculative fiction writer was winning the short story contest at the 2004 Australian national SF convention. Since then he has sold stories to professional and semi-pro magazines, webzines and anthologies in Australia and internationally. His stories have won grand prize in the Writers of the Future contest, been shortlisted four times at Australia’s Aurealis Awards (winning Best Fantasy Short Story in 2010) and appeared in the Locus annual Recommended Reading List. Links to most of Ian’s past publications can be found (free) on his website. His first short story collection, tentatively titled Angel Dust, will be published by Ticonderoga Publications in 2014.
I got my mermaid novel into rewrite mode this week after taking a couple of months off to let the feedback settle and get a bit of distance from it.
Reading through the notes was far more difficult than I thought it would be, not because they were bad notes or anything – just the opposite, but because:
a) it’s time consuming
b) criticism, no matter how well intended, is tough.
The first thing I did was acknowledge that being a mermaid story, it should probably start in the ocean. So I rewrote the first chapter – or more accurately, pushed the first chapter back and wrote an entirely new introduction.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work for me.
There isn’t much conflict that goes on in the water, and what there is I’m considering cutting back on. Almost the entire story is set on land. I could certainly introduce some more conflict (probably between the mermaids), but that creates an entirely new set of plot issues.
So that leaves me with two options – write some sort of ‘Indiana Jones’ style teaser, or go with what I have and try to make it better.
The Indiana Jones option has some appeal if I can find something suitable – something that introduces the main character (including her strengths and weaknesses), sets the tone of the story, and generally catapaults the reader into the action without otherwise being important to what happens next.
The current beginning is set on the beach and introduces the main character’s major internal conflict which leads into the main story. I works, but it could be better.
There are two sides of a story, but they’ll usually fall toward one side or another, some more strongly than others. On one side are stories with a stronger intellectual pull, and on the other, stories with a stronger an emotional pull.
Different genres generally lean toward one of these categories, but the best stories, no matter their genre, do both.
Take Hard Science Fiction for example. Hard SF is likely to feature complex science and ‘big ideas’, and would therefore be more likely to draw readers looking for a high concept, original story.
Murder Mystery readers would fall into the same category, but for different reasons; there’s a mystery to be solved and that’s what works for them. Its the intellectual pull that draws them in.
On the other side of the fence are the readers looking for emotional content. The obvious example is the Romance novel.
Romance readers already know how the story’s going to end, yet romances sell better than anything else.
Why? Its the emotional rollercoaster. Fantasy readers would also sit here – it’s a hero they want, and it’s a hero they get. Usually.
For readers looking for emotional content, how it happens is more important than what happens. You can almost be certain the ‘dark lord’ is going to lose in the end or the romance will work out.
So how do you make this work for you?
Do both. Throw in a high concept and blend it with emotional content.
Don’t believe me? Here’s some examples:
Harry Potter – Orphan Boy must defeat Dark Lord – standard fantasy tropes. Throw in a mystery or three, exceptionally clever plotting, and then make the boy the object of almost everyone’s ire – whalah! Bestselling series.
How about Dune? Hard SF revolving around the ecology of the planet Dune and the byproduct of giant sand worms which more or less grant supernatural powers. Throw in a couple of romances and a hero that must rise up and defeat an empire – whalah! One of the biggest-selling SF novels of all time.
Titanic (the James Cameron movie). A ship hits an iceberg and sinks. Its inevitable – history. A documentary would just show the facts – a tragedy. However, throw in a romance between two starcrossed lovers, book-end it with a search for treasure and show it from a survivor’s POV, and Shakespere couldn’t do much better.
How about The Hunger Games? Twenty-four kids from a distopian society get thrown into an arena to fight to the death – as high-concept as it gets. However, give them something to fight for – something even bigger than their lives – and suddenly you’ve got a story everyone wants to read. It’s about them, but it’s bigger. Its a love story. Its a story about defying the unjust authorities.
The Girl Who Played With Fire. It could easily be seen as a standard mystery, but it’s not. There’s something of a romance between the two protagonists, but that’s just part of it. They also have their own stories – one is unfairly put in goal while the other gets physically and emotionally abused -and suddenly you’ve got a story thats bigger than all the parts put together.
So how do you use this to your advantage?
Simple. Borrow from both sides of the equation. Make your story both emotionally and intellectually stimulating.
Ever hit the wall and have no idea what to write next? Maybe you’ve just reached that point where nothing exciting is happening and you’re losing interest. And of course, if you’re losing interest, forget about your readers.
You might call it writers block. You might call it all kinds of blue-coloured words. You might simply take a break in the hope that inspiration strikes.
Worst scenario: you might give up.
Don’t! If you give up, you could be losing a fantastic story.
Instead, try this exercise:
“What’s the worst thing that could happen at this point in the story?”
Write it. Now. I’ll wait.
Very possibly, I’ve led you astray a little. The worst thing that could happen is all your characters catch a rare form of the flu and die, or an asteroid strikes the planet and they all die, or the sun explodes and they all die… you get the drift.
Okay then, lets peg it back a bit.
Your character tells a white lie – he’s had a fight with his wife, so she’s left him alone to deal with the business of running their ice-skating rink (or maybe something as simple as organising a dinner with friends). He’s too embarrassed to admit it, so he tells everyone she’s sick – caught a chill, and is resting up in bed.
What’s the worst thing that can happen? Someone’s got some medical qualifications and insists on helping.
Of course he could admit to the lie, but…
He tries to cover his lie and convinces someone to ‘play sick’ (maybe an employee, perhaps a neighbour), which not only deepens the lie, but draws someone else into it – and now you can see the snowball effect. “Oh no, it’s VERY contagious…”
And the worst thing that could happen at that point is…?
Okay, lets get back on track. We’re not actually building a story.
However, that sort of thing works particularly well with comedy, but also translates quite well into most genres.
Genre, you say.
Imagine you’re writing an action story – two tough cops go into a den of drug lords to rescue a kidnapping victim.
It’s time sensitive, and they make the call to go in early. What’s the worst thing that can happen – maybe one gets wounded and has to be dragged out – and the mission fails.
And of course, there are consequences.
Because they went in early and without backup, the kidnapping victim gets killed – and they get the blame. Suddenly they’re off the force, leaving them with the only option available – prove they did the right thing. Yet one of them is in hospital recovering…
You see where I’m going?
More than likely you’ll want to discard the first option (or four) that comes to you, but if you ever get stuck, if things slow down, or you simply can’t figure a way out of the mess you’ve created, ask yourself: “What’s the worst thing that can happen next?”
I prefer writing to planning. I just want to get on with it. Sometimes, even stating what goes in the Beginning, Middle and End is too much effort.
However, to write something more complex than a single POV story I’ve got to plan out the storylines and how they fit together, otherwise I’ll stick with one or maybe two.
For the Welcome To Earth novel I’m in the middle of, I’ve got five Points Of View, and I developed them all pretty thoroughly.
The problem is, once I start writing a story, it almost always takes an entirely fresh turn from anything I’d planned. Sometimes lots of turns.
That can be good. I love finding out what happens as I write it.
But that doesn’t work with multiple storylines that need to interconnect.
Problem is, I never planned this story as a novel. I planned it as a pilot television script, and that’s how I originally wrote it.
And that’s why it all fell apart – it wasn’t suited to becoming a novel, but I thought it would be. I didn’t do any more planning to flesh it out.
And so there it was – forty-five pages of outline in script form, ready to be drawn from, and it wasn’t filled with enough detail.
The big divergence happened when I added an entirely new beginning, changing it from sets of two sequences to three (ie, three for the Beginning, Middle A, Middle B, and the End).
That means I now have to find and develop three entirely new sequences spread out over the entire novel – about 30-40,000 words.
Obviously, I got ‘writers block’. Or, in this case, ‘what the heck do I do with this mess now?’.
The only way I can see to fix it is to shift the main plot to a sub-plot and bring forward the story I’d intended for the sequel, and overlap them. Two storylines, one story. There simply isn’t enough happening in the original script to fill an entire novel.
If only I’d seen that before I began and reworked the outline/script.
The question now is, will it work? Is it even what I really want to do?
Everyone says you need conflict in your story, internal or external.
But what about threats? Are they the same thing?
Is the evil overlord presiding from the mountain of doom who wants to rule the world the conflict in the story, or some sort of threat?
Think of it this way: the threat’s coming from the evil overlord. If not stopped, the threat will realised.
A threat is the potential for all sorts of nasty things, but of itself isn’t conflict.
Losing the world, in this case, is the threat.
So what’s the conflict?
Conflict is immediate. It’s happening.
It comes from the minions trying to kill the good guys, the ally who says ‘I’m not helping you today, I’ve got a High Tea to attend’, from the evil overlord (when they finally get face-to-face), and even the self doubts and fears your characters carry.
Conflicts are immediate – threats have potential consequences your heros aren’t going to like.
What does your character(s) want? What are they actively pursuing? This is an external goal.
What does your character need? This will be something internal, something they aren’t likely to be aware of – a lesson to be learned, perhaps. The moral of the story.
For example, a high school student wants to be part of the ‘in’ crowd, when what they really need is to be happy with themself first.
Getting what they need will affect how they see what they want, while getting what they want before getting what they need won’t fulfill them.
What they want drives them. What they need completes them.
Getting what they need may make what they want even more worthwhile or it may render it totally obsolete. They may even have to sacrifice what they want entirely if it gives them what they need.
When they get what they need they can finally see what they want in its true light.
5. Identify the main plot points and transitions – beginning, middle, end, inciting incident, midpoint, etc.
If you don’t know what these are, and there’s lots more that I haven’t listed, I’ll be writing another post (or several) in the future covering them. For the moment though, I’ve drawn a diagram.
Do they work to best effect?
Can they be made to work better?
6. Chapter outline – write a brief sentence describing each chapter.
This will help you identify weak chapters or chapters that do nothing for the story.
You need to justify each chapter’s existence. Each sentence should:
State what the chapter’s trying to convey
Show how the chapter moves the story along.
7. Write a Cause and Effect. “Because of this, this happens. Because this happens…”
Start big, Ie:
Beginning: Bella moves to Forks – meets Edward.
Middle A: She’s attracted to him – discovers he’s a vampire which is part of the attraction.
Middle B: They hook up – she becomes involved in the ‘vampire world’.
End: Bad vampires come after Bella – Edward and family try to protect her.
Each cause has an effect, which leads to the next cause. It’s a logical progression. If you can’t find the logical progresssion, your story has a problem.
Once you’ve got the big steps down, break them into smaller steps.
Your breakdown for the beginning might be two or three pages long (although it can be much less or more). And like the big steps, it needs a logical progression. Find it.
Everything outside the cause and effect must be essential to moving the story forward in some other way.
8. Identify the big structural changes you need to make.
For example: ‘the ending isn’t satisfying enough – must rewrite to ensure the main character struggles more to achieve their goals’.
Like the example, write a list of big points that need fixing. Make these changes before going on. There’s no point in polishing text if big swathes of it might be cut or largely altered.
9. Identify the smaller but important changes you need to make.
Make outer space/ocean/sword/city/weather more of an influential ‘player’ in the story
Make the main character more sympathetic
Make the antagonist appear nice at first [misdirection].
Write a list of things that need to be done, and make the changes before going on.
10. Edit the words.
Only after you’re happy with the overall structure should you start playing with words, sentences and paragraphs.
Do a complete pass from beginning to end, and once you move onto the next chapter, don’t go back until the next full pass. It’s too easy to get bogged down in the process of polishing something to imperfection. Set some sort of goal and stick to it.
11. Finally, figure out when its ‘good enough’ and get it out into the world.
If you can’t explain what it’s about clearly and concisely, how can you expect your story be clear and concise, or even interesting?
Aim for under 25 words. Better yet, see if you can do it in 15.
Impossible, I hear you say!
Of course not – but we’re talking broad strokes, not detail. Any longer than 25 words, and your ‘audience’ is going to go to sleep. You need to interest them – not fill in the gaps. Overview stuff.
Example: “It’s about a girl from another universe who falls in love with a human boy despite herself.” Not very specific, but better than trying to dump all the details at once. A teaser, nothing more.
Still, its a little vague and not particularly informative. Too broad, perhaps.
How about: “A warrior princess from another universe falls for a human boy while hunting the shapechanger that murdered her parents.” Far more specific, yet still less than twenty words. If they’re interested – they’ll ask for more details.
It also gives a pretty solid impression of the genre and audience.
So, how do you go about it?
Break it into four parts:
Part 1 – Who the story’s about. Don’t name them, but describe them. ie, A Warrior Princess.
Part 2 – What they want. Ie, revenge – she’s hunting her parents’ killer.
Part 3 – What’s standing in their way. In this case, the shapechanger AND the love interest.
Part 4 – Show the irony in the situation (or the hook). Ie, While seeking revenge, she instead falls in love.
Those parts don’t necessarily have to be in order, but they do have to be there.
If you can do this for each story you write, you’ll not only produce a stronger, tighter story, you’ll also have a better shot at selling it.