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Posts Tagged Plot
I have bought your book, Nail Your Novel, and it has been really helpful. I was having a blast. Loving my characters, villains, setting, plot. But after 70.000 words I have a huge abyss in my story, I hit this blank between the middle of act II and the climax. Everything before and after that is just fine, but it seems that no matter what I do, I can’t resolve this blank spot.
Eric Alatza, first-time writer, Brazil. (Oh my: Brazil. I know the web is world wide so this shouldn’t give us pause, not for even a picosecond. Especially as you might be reading this in Brazil too. But it reminds me, in London, how much I appreciate that self-publishing and social media lets us reach …. anywhere. #momentofawe #howmuchdoIlovetechnology)
Okay, here’s how I’d attack Eric’s problem.
1 Does your story climax really fit?
You’re trying to join the end to the rest of the book, but does it fit? Has the story evolved beyond your original plans? Do you believe in this ending?
I had this problem with Lifeform Three. In my first draft I had written a storming finale, planned from the start, and indeed it had a lot of material I was chuffed with. You will never see it because it wasn’t the ending the book needed. As I wrote, the characters had taken on deeper issues, confronted essential questions – and my original ending was logical but disappointing. So I nuked it – yes, the entire final third of the book – and started again.
I’m wondering, Eric, if your spider sense is telling you this, which is why you can’t jump the chasm to the finale you planned. Ask yourself:
- Is the ending unsatisfying in terms of themes explored, questions posed, other threads left dangling?
- Are you forcing the characters in a direction they don’t want to go?
- Will a character have to be uncharacteristically stupid to bring about this climax?
Is a new ending too painful to contemplate? Well, it costs nothing to brainstorm. Just as an exercise, cut loose and see where else you might go.
You mention you have problems with the story’s middle. Is that because your ideas so far don’t seem significant enough?
If so, ask why. The middle of act II is traditionally a turning point. Perhaps the story stakes magnify, or an event turns everything on its head. Mr Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, which surprises and appals her. Nothing can be the same after that conversation. Perhaps there are new alliances that change the nature of the conflict – as in The Hunger Games. It might be the point where the character’s flaw, inner problem or true self first emerges as a dominant force – in Fahrenheit 451, the midpoint is where Montag meets a new mentor character. In the film of The Godfather, the midpoint is the scene where Michael Corleone commits murder, setting him on a new path. It might be a transformation that is subtle but deep. In My Memories of a Future Life, it’s where my narrator truly surrenders to the future incarnation. (I tried to write that without giving spoilers…)
So is your midpoint important enough? Have you got that sense of transformation and escalation? If not, brainstorm ways to find this significance. (And allow yourself to think of solutions that might mess up your planned ending.)
3 Get fresh inspiration
As always, you might be running on empty. When I’m stuck, I go to LibraryThing.com and search for novels that tackle similar themes, issues and situations. I also post an appeal for recommendations on Twitter and Facebook. (I’d do it on Goodreads too if I could work out how.)
Dissatisfaction is progress
There is a reason why you’re balking, although you may not consciously know it yet Our instincts are rarely articulate, but they are usually right. You know the rule about inspiration and perspiration? To fill a plot hole, do more digging.
Drafting is more than transcribing your notes
All the stages of novel-writing are creative. We’re constantly triaging our ideas and refining them. Whether we’re outlining, drafting or editing, we might find new insights and directions. Be ready to make the most of them.
More about the Nail Your Novels here. Even available in Brazil.
Thanks for the pic Corinnely
What would you say to Eric?
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I get a lot of emails about the beat sheet revision exercise I describe in Nail Your Novel. I’ve just prepared an example for my Guardian masterclass using the opening of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 so I thought you guys might find it helpful.
Bradbury is one of my heroes for the way he explored science fiction ideas in a lyrical style – and indeed he described himself as a writer of fables rather than SF. Strong influence there for my own Lifeform Three, in case you were wondering. Anyway, creating the beat sheet made me admire Fahrenheit even more so I thought it would be fun to share my discoveries here. (Discreet cough: spoiler alert…)
First of all, what’s a beat sheet?
It’s my absolute rescue exercise for revision. Think of it as an x-ray of your draft. It lets you check the structure, pacing, mood of scenes, character arcs, keep control of plots and subplots, wrangle your timeline – all the problems you can’t see when you’re lost in a sea of words. And you can learn a lot if you make a beat sheet of a book you admire.
Here’s how it’s done. You summarise the book, writing the scene’s purpose and add its mood in emoticons. Either use an A4 sheet and write small, or a spreadsheet. Be brief as you need to make this an at-a-glance document. Use colours for different plotlines or characters. Later you can draw all over it as you decide what to change. This is the first third of Fahrenheit 451.
- Intro Montag, startling wrongness, brutality of burning scene :0
- Meets C, explanation of fireman job + role. Establishes M’s alienation from
natural world & how people are isolated
- M ” home. Wife overdosed :0 !
- Horror/desperation of rescue, texture of deeper sadness :0, concealment of
true feelings, everyone’s doing this
- Morning. Wife doesn’t remember. M isolated with the horror. TV gives people substitute for company
- M meets C again, disturbed by her, fascinated by her curiosity & joy
- Intro to mechanical hound. Brutal games other firemen play. M hated it & feels threatened by hound. Guilty secret :0
- Friendship with C deepens. She’s misfit. Explanation of how kids are
- taught in school. Other kids as brutal as firemen. M increasingly drawn to her outlook
- M progressively more alienated & uncomfortable :0 Goes with firemen to house. Steals book ! Woman defends her books & sets fire to herself !!
- Men shaken. Captain B pulls them together
- M too upset/afraid to go to work. Tries to talk to wife. Wife’s priority is for him to keep his job & buy gadgets. Can’t comprehend or notice M’s distress :0
- B visits – pep-talk, history lesson. Wife finds concealed book ! Does B know?
- M confesses :0 ! Is B friend or foe? ? !
- M confesses to wife ! He has 20 books !! Now she could be in trouble too. Furious. Persuades her to start reading !!!…
So that’s how it’s done.
Now, even more delicious, what can we learn from Mr Bradbury?
Beginnings are tricky – what information do you show? Bradbury gives us a lot, but makes it memorable and entertaining with his use of contrast.
First is the startling close-up of the books being burned and the brutal relish in his description. Next is the conversation with Clarice McLellan, the kooky neighbour who seems to come from a completely different, gentler world. Third scene is Montag’s home life. (We can see this from the colours – blue for work, orange for the conversations with the intriguing girl, yellow for home.)
We’re probably expecting the home scene, so Bradbury keeps us on our toes and breaks the pattern. It’s no regular scene of domesticity. It’s Mildred Montag’s suicide bid. There follows a horrifying scene where technicians pump her out, routine as an oil change. It builds on those two emotions we’ve seen in the earlier scenes – the brutality from scene one (brought by the technicians), and the sensitivity from scene two (Montag’s reaction). In just three scenes, the world is established – and so is the book’s emotional landscape. A brutal, despairing world and a sensitive man.
Connecting us with the character
In the next scene, Mildred is awake, chipper, and has no memory of the previous night. Only Montag knows how dreadful it was and he can’t make her believe it. She is only interested in talking about the new expensive TV gadget she wants. This confirms Montag’s isolation and disquiet. And ours. We are his only confidante. We’re in this with him.
In each of those scenes, something is changing – Montag is being surprised or upset (or both). Although Bradbury is acquainting us with the world and the characters, he is also increasing Montag’s sense of instability. As you’ll see from the beat sheet, the later scenes continue that pattern.
Pressure and relief: reflects the character’s inner life
Look at the emoticons. They show us the mood of each scene and, cumulatively, of the book. But successive scenes of pressure (action, perhaps, or upsetting events) can wear the reader down. That’s one of the reasons why we might have a moment of relief – downtime around the campfire, or a brief flash of humour. These relief scenes often carry enormous impact because of the contrast.
Fahrenheit 451 builds this atmosphere of a brutal world, and we notice it quickly. The only relief is in the conversations with Clarice – so the reader’s need for relief mirrors Montag’s internal state. Reader bonded to the main character by the author’s handling of mood. What perfect, controlled storytelling.
I could go on, but this post is long enough already. And we need time to discuss!
The beat sheet is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. More here
And more about Lifeform Three here
Have you made beat sheets of your own novels, or novels you admire? Are there any questions you want to ask about beat sheets? Or let’s carry on the discussion about Fahrenheit 451. Ready, aim, fire
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I’m stuck. I outlined a setting, characters and events. But when it comes to put all together, they don’t fit. Every time I try to change something (aspects of the setting, adding or removing characters) things don’t work. I tried killing several darlings (and reviving them),but the plot is still not making sense. I feel like I’m forcing a cat to take a bath. I keep seeing logic holes. I rearrange and new holes appear. I tried a lot of things (including the card game from Nail Your Novel), but I feel there is something I can’t see, which is the piece I’m missing to put in (or take away) to make things work.
Oh my, what a familiar litany. You must have been eavesdropping chez Morris. My desk is currently littered with notes and scribbles about The Mountains Novel.
What stands out for me is this phrase:
‘I feel like there’s something I can’t see, the piece I’m missing to make things work.’
So there are two things you are looking for: coherence and clarity.
(And what’s that got to do with the title of this post? We’ll come to that. But first, let’s tackle coherence.)
Every time you try to streamline, your inner editor-fairy is telling you that’s not the way. Sometimes we’re like detectives following a hunch, and the only way is a 7% solution or strangle a violin. Just what is the connection that makes sense of all this sprawl?
Here’s what I do – and it’s not very different from what you’ve described. I muddle about with possibilities, subtract things, double them, make lists of pros and cons of a new idea, viewpoint or angle, let the idea settle and come back to it anew.
It particularly helps to return to your themes. Jot them down and consider how your plot events and character issues align with them. Perhaps your themes have changed and this is why the novel is looking too sprawling. Has it suddenly become a novel about ‘everything’?
Sometimes you get more coherence by diving into the first draft regardless. If you have a scene order that makes rough sense but isn’t perfect, start writing anyway. See what happens once you live as the characters and let them inhabit the book. You might find their experience fills those gaps and confirms your hunch on a level you couldn’t get by analysis. Or you might see modifications you can make – rewrite cards, shuffle them if necessary, adjust your map as you go.
With The Mountains Novel, I have two big ideas I’m putting together that don’t appear to naturally fit. That’s one reason I’m not going to tell you what they are in this post – but in my gut I always knew they belonged together. And the further in I write, the more resonance I see.
Which brings me to my more practical tip.
I’m currently rereading The English Patient. I love both novel and movie – but they are very different, even though they are made from the same characters, setting and story events. Reading the novel and noticing the differences is suggesting new ways I could use my own ideas – and they’re all the kind of changes we might make when refining a plot -
- characters in the novel have been spliced together to suit the leaner lines of a film
- scenes that happened in the back story of peripheral characters have been reworked as bonding moments for the main players
- the scenes featuring the English patient’s romance are very different and very much condensed, yet true to the spirit of the original novel
- the novel’s climax is not the same as the movie’s, where far more emphasis is on the English patient’s romance
- the novel’s events are more fragmented, less chronological
So find a novel that has been extensively reworked to make it into a movie, and notice how the demands of each medium – and audience – has reimagined common material.
Marco, you’re doing all the right things. You may feel lost, but sometimes this takes a long time (see this post about how I write and here’s the pics version) It’s often frustrating, and you might feel that all you achieve is a big list of duff stuff. But you might not realise how far you’ve come. Sometimes I look through old notes and smirk at the ideas I was trying to shoehorn in but am now wiser about. (My favourite bookseller, Peter Snell of Barton’s in Leatherhead, points out that I have been mentioning The Mountains Novel in enigmatic hints ever since I first walked into his shop in Christmas 2012 and I’m not nearly done with it yet.) But time and persistence will show you what belongs and what doesn’t.
What would you tell Marco? How have you found clarity in a muddled plot? And can you suggest any movie adaptations that depart interestingly from the original novel?
NEWSFLASH Sandy Spangler and I have finished the files for the audiobook of My Memories of a Future Life (here are the posts about our adventures) and I just noticed today on the ACX dashboard that it’s passed the technical vetting. If you’re signed up to my newsletter I’ll be sending an email as soon as it’s out – and I’ll have a limited number of review copies to offer. If you want the chance to get a free copy of the audiobook, sign up here!
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Scratch that; they weren’t just tricky. They were a forensic slog.
I’d already checked everything that affected the central plot events – journey times, important dates and so on. But that was months before. Not only that, there were countless niggles I hadn’t realised would alert an editor’s eye. It was amazing what I didn’t know about my own book. How many hours had passed since the hostages were taken? On what day did the characters meet the mysterious man? She questioned every plot beat, flashback and nightfall.
Sitting down to answer that exhaustive list, I felt like Arthur Dent when he lamented that he couldn’t get the hang of Thursdays.
Thankfully my timelines held, give or take a minor snag, but I learned my lesson. Ever since, I’ve been fastidious about them.
Timelines are mainly invisible
Unless you’re writing a time travel story or a novel with condensed action, timelines are mainly invisible to readers. Like plot and character arcs, they’re the unseen looms of the storyteller’s art. And this means writers often don’t realise they need to take control of them. Until they face an editor’s interrogation.
You’ll be astonished what editors – and readers – will call you on. Is it possible for Joe to have recovered from his broken leg enough to climb a ladder? Are those characters in two places at once? How can that scene be back story if the event hasn’t happened yet?
If you take control of your timeline, you’ll find it much easier to know if your plot is plausible, and to sort out the hiccups.
Here are my tips.
If the timeline drives the story, you might want to design it before you start writing, or sketch out the main markers – historical events, calendar landmarks. Some writers use year planners, but a sheet of A4 is just as good.
You might also want to verify possibilities that require precision – such as travel. (And if you’re writing time travel you need to be very precise.)
Otherwise, be casual. You can decide these details in revision. If you stop and fret every time you need to write ‘last night’ or ‘next June’ you’ll probably get paralysed by indecision. Write something magnificently vague such as ‘the other day’ or ‘soon’, and sail on.
Before you revise
Now get serious about time. Before I revise a manuscript I analyse the first draft with an exercise I call a beat sheet. Essentially it’s an at-a-glance summary of every scene. You can make it on paper or a spreadsheet, and one of your columns is reserved to record when the scene happens.
As you summarise each scene for the beat sheet, notice if you’ve made a point about the date, time or event, and record it in the timeline column. If you haven’t, leave it blank.
Also write in if a deadline has appeared – for instance, 20 minutes before the bomb detonates. If your plot includes a race against the clock, the timing often needs to be worked out to the minute. With the beat sheet it’s simplicity itself to write the timings against plot events and check they work.
Then fill the blanks, deciding what will be plausible for those sections of the story. Perhaps the precise date isn’t important and you can bracket them together as ‘summer’, to ensure your weather descriptions are consistent. Or you might decide you can enhance the action by setting it at Christmas or even a time that corresponds with a newsworthy world event – whatever suits you.
But when those editors and beta readers quiz you on your story’s plausibility, you’ll have the answers ready. Painlessly.
The beat sheet is my go-to method for revising my novels’ structure, plot and character arcs. It’s explained fully in my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence.
Do you have problems keeping track of time in your novels? Have you found a solution? Share in the comments
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Some writers plan to the ennnnnth degree. Before they write, they prepare a trunkload of ideas, route maps and background. Then we have the scribblers who travel light. Just the barest plot twist, perhaps a skinnily-honed last line or a little black denouement. (Actually, I’m warming to this wardrobe theme.)
So if you’re in the former category, what mustn’t you forget? And if the latter, what’s the bare minimum you can get away with?
Today I’m at a festival called Chapter Book Challenge, a month-long event that aims to galvanise writers to write a chapter book in just a month. I’m zoning in on the essentials for the drafting process – and as an added bonus, commenters on the post (THAT post, not this one!) will get entered into a draw to win a paperback copy of Nail Your Novel, original flavour, which is packed with essentials for getting you from first idea to final draft. Come on over to find out what every well-dressed novel is wearing...
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This post was provoked by a tweet. I was working on Nail Your Novel 3 and tweeted that instead of writing ‘the three-act structure’ I’d written ‘the three-cat structure’. Keyboard possessed by Blake Snyder?
Teddi Deppner (@tmdeppner), who you might have seen commenting here from time to time, rejoined:
‘I sure would like to see alternatives to the 3-act structure. Especially for non-movie, non-novel storytelling.’ She elaborated:
‘I want to write serial fiction that offers an experience more like an ongoing TV show (instead of a novel)… I wonder how comic book writers structure their stuff? Maybe that would be similar, too…’
It happened I knew just the man…
‘Not sure that I do use 3-act structure. I just write each episode as it comes, like a TV show. Structure emerges, not planned.’
Darn! There I am, writing about structure for my next book, and I’m nearly trounced by my own team. Dave has always been sceptical of writing ‘rules’. I persisted…
‘But does the structure follow the 3-act pattern?’
‘In retrospect, you can see a 3-act structure in each season.’
3 and 4-act structure
In case you’re scratching your head, here’s a catch-up. Briefly, the ‘act’ structure is all about where you put crescendos and twists in your story. There’s a general pattern that turns out to be most satisfying to audiences – a major change at roughly a quarter in, then another one at the three-quarter point. That’s three acts. It’s also good to have another change at the halfway point, which actually makes four acts, but some people don’t count that so they call it three. Why three? It’s beginning, middle and end. Simple.
Whether you call it three acts or four, it works so well it’s been translated into a fundamental formula. Some writers use it to outline before they start. Some use it to troubleshoot – if the story feels flabby, you can tighten it by restructuring to fit this shape. If you have a long-running story with characters and plotlines that mature at different rates, you can construct each of the arcs so they hit those markers.
… and back to Dave. As I said, he’s wary of the idea of storytelling ‘rules’ or ‘principles’, preferring to write by instinct. Indeed he told me that many years ago, a friend came back from a writing course with news of a wondrous formula – this three-act thingy. Dave had never heard of it, and indeed had already published several books. However, when he investigated further, he found he’d structured them with the major crescendos and twists at the quarter points.
This is how it is with writing – or any art. We all understand some aspects innately. For others we find it helpful to be shown a rule or a principle. In my case, I understood structure and pacing from the get-go. I struggled, though, with ‘show not tell’ and needed a good bit of nagging to grasp it.
Thanks for the pic, Sandy Spangler
(So yes, I am working on Nail Your Novel 3, which will tackle plot. It doesn’t have an official title yet, nor a release date, but if you’re interested, sign up for my newsletter. Other Nail Your Novel books can be found here)
And in the meantime…
Which writing rules do you find easy and which do you find difficult, either to grasp or to accept?
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As you saw last week, I’m plotting The Mountains Novel on cards. I know the big picture – how it begins, where the characters can go and what the final note is. I’m now shuffling the events to get the strongest order and viewing the results with a critical eye.
Here’s what I’m looking for.
1 Finding the logic gaps
Is a story beat missing? Should a character react to an event? Is there a consequence I should cover?
2 Characters fitting the plot
Am I forcing a character to do something to suit the plot instead of what comes naturally to them? Is anyone behaving for the plot’s convenience, instead of the truth of the story? For instance, is someone doing something dumb so that the plot can advance?
This isn’t always bad, by the way. Sometimes characters do things that aren’t in their best interests or that spoil things for themselves – and it’s part of their complexity. And if they do, I need to make a feature of it.
3 Is anything predictable?
Could I introduce more twists and surprises? While plotting step by step, it’s easy to follow an obvious pattern. Now I need to make sure everything happens in the most interesting way, and look for opportunities to misdirect the reader or reinforce my themes. I also need to watch out for convenient coincidences.
I’m wondering if I need comic relief? The Mountains Novel is quite elegaic, and too much might get monotonous or precious. I’m looking for opportunities to add lighter moments so that I don’t wear the reader out.
5 Other rethinks
I’ve realised I’ve called two characters by the wrong names. One of them started out as comic relief, a variation on a stereotype who would give the reader something familiar to follow in a bizarre situation. But he is now so much of an individual that the name seems crude. This is annoying, because when I invented it I was rather delighted. But funnily enough, it would suit another secondary character, whose role must change because of the character who has developed. Can I adjust my mental image of the name? Or should I (reluctantly) consign it to outtake history?
6 Reviewing my wrong turnings
While I was conceptualising The Mountains Novel, I wrote reams of notes for possible story directions. With each new exploration, I didn’t dare read the old material in case I lost my way. But now I’m confident in its direction, I can look back over those early conjurings and see if there is material that might be useful. Many of them won’t fit, but some will add richness.
You can find other tips on outlining and troubleshooting in Nail Your Novel, which writing teacher and literary agent Lisa Cron recently recommended as part of her shortlist of essential writing books (hooray!).
And – hooray #2! My Memories of A Future Life (nailed novel) has been given a Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction by Awesome Indies. This was a big surprise as they first assessed it two years ago and I never thought they’d even remember it. Thanks, guys!
Do you troubleshoot your outline? If so, what kinds of things have you changed that made a big difference?
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The warm heart is the bond we feel with the central characters. It is the pleasure of spending time in their company. I hesitate to call it liking; it may not be so simple. Our attachment may be to just one person and their flaws and troubles, or it may be to a web of relationships. It is affection, but rough-edged. It is warm, but it might not be cuddly. It’s push and pull, trouble and strife, idiocies and idiosyncrasies. But it is where the reader feels at home.
And then there is the dark heart. The dark heart is jeopardy. The shadow at the end of the alleyway. The characters may have other problems in the story. They may fight miscellaneous foes. But the dark heart is an ultimate disturbance that will demand a day of reckoning.
Two long-running TV shows illustrate this in action. Fringe has both hearts. The central characters form a story family. Some of them are bonded by filial ties: the father, Walter; the son, Peter. There’s Olivia, the FBI agent who becomes Peter’s lover. There’s Astrid, a lab assistant sidekick who becomes a close friend. They are the warm heart of the show; the humans who have real and complex relationships and sally forth to do battle. And Fringe has its dark heart. The characters are on borrowed time; every day brings them closer to a confrontation they cannot escape.
One heart down
By contrast, Doctor Who, whose title character actually has two hearts, only has one of them working.
The story’s warm heart is in good shape. The Doctor and his TARDIS companion always have a vibrant relationship that brings us back week after week. We also get drop-ins from the extended story family: the Doctor’s wife; the occasional friendly alien he befriended while saving them. Previous companions are also available. This creates a galaxy family bonded by experience and affection.
The warm heart beats strongly. But the dark heart does not.
Now that might seem like nonsense. Doctor Who is all about getting into danger and fighting monsters, right? But they don’t treat these as seriously as they treat the character universe.
The threats are often negligible. Too often, the Doctor wins with a gadget, some fast-talking, an asspull or a vague wave of the omnitalented sonic screwdriver. He never has to raise his game to win. And the scriptwriters frequently bend the rules of their own show – thus disrespecting their own universe.
Although each series has an overall arc, which is where the dark heart should be beating its dreadful rhythm, it is false. It never produces a confrontation that will really put the Doctor on his mettle, or that could credibly destroy him. Even if the writers trick it up to look like that, he’s usually freed in one bound, and does not have to go through the wringer.
Because the writers don’t make us believe in the dark heart, the warm heart loses some of its power. You could say this demonstrates that we need the story to be taken as seriously as the characters are. Controversial.
Fringe goes one step further to genius. Here is why: the warm heart created the dark heart. Walter Bishop committed a crime that started an epic war. His son died, and so he opened a wormhole to a parallel universe and stole him back. The flawed warm heart let the dark heart in.
In a great story, the warm heart and the dark heart pump each other with life. The dark heart makes the warm heart more precious. And the warm heart makes the dark heart more terrible.
Let’s discuss some stories – film, TV or prose – with warm and dark hearts. Buffy, anyone?
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My novel is more than 170,000 words without the back story, which I had to cull because it was 70,000 words. I tried eliminating it; the book was a shallow disaster. I’ve tried summarising; it interrupted the story without explaining what was going on. The problem is that the culture and setting are predicated on an event 70 years before the story begins. This is key to the protagonist’s behaviour, attitude and circumstances.
The villain is involved 5 years before the story starts and works behind the scenes against the protagonist, who thinks the villain is dead. But if I don’t introduce the back story involving him, a lot of the story doesn’t make sense and characters’ reactions are hard to understand – especially in later books. I’m grateful for any suggestions.
Wow, Henry, I can see you’ve got a lot to squeeze in. And it’s far too much for the reader to catch up with. We need to restructure your story. This is what I would do.
Solution 1 – Try to simplify
DOES the story have to be this complex? Has it run away with you as you’ve added events and complications?
I frequently get myself into this kind of fix. I invent far more than I need. At some stage, I take a hard look and decide what I can streamline.
Take a blank sheet of paper and write down only the most important pieces of history. How do you decide that those are? They’re what help your readers understand the problems of your protagonist.
From other information you’ve told me, I know you’re writing a dystopia. There’s no better model than other novels that do it well – try Fahrenheit 451 and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Both have a heck of a lot of explaining to do, but never overwhelm the reader. They begin with the protagonist on an ordinary day, coping with a feeling they don’t fit with the world. This is accessible and relatable to everyone, and lets the reader connect with the character’s humanity. So look at your world’s problems in terms of what disturbs or distresses your protagonist in their normal life.
Both those novels do eventually reveal a lot of back story. We do get to World 101 – why it’s in such a mess, on a knife edge and who made it that way. But we don’t find out for some considerable time. First, we bed in with the characters. When the larger chunks of back story are revealed, they are parallel to the protagonist’s state of mind. They come at a stage where the character is curious to ask these deeper questions: how did we go so wrong? How can I get out of it?
If you do this, you will see how little of your back story you need to get the plot running. Concentrate on the characters and what makes life hard for them – and preferably harder than for other people in the story, so that they are the canary in the coal mine. The protagonists of Fahrenheit 451 and Nineteen Eighty-Four are first and foremost unhappy misfits. Second, they are echoing a sense of humanity gone wrong.
Even so, the authors might not have told us everything they had developed. So while you’re simplifying, look out for ideas you could leave out (even if you’re proud of them).
You made the back story this complex because it interests you, right? It’s become as important as the present story.
For instance, your villain had his heyday before your narrative starts. Why not write that story? And the main events happened 70 years before – that could be another story.
You could twine them together as parallel narratives – like The Godfather. Vito Corleone’s life is one strand: his son, Michael Corleone, is living in the world Vito made.
Now I can understand why you might not have thought to spotlight these stories. The outcomes, as we know, must be that baddies triumphed – a downbeat ending. But some books go like that – especially books about worlds. Think of A Game of Thrones – an epic series where some characters succeed and some fail. Your villain’s victory could surely be a dramatic story. People must have opposed him; he can’t have got away without a fight. Even if he succeeds, you could also suggest a twinkle of hope, a scrap of resistance that won’t stay quiet for ever.
Solution 3 – add a newcomer
Another way into a complex world is to introduce it through a proxy character like John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s series, who arrives on Mars from Earth. All the civilisation is new to him, which means he has to acclimatise along with the reader. (Same as John Carter in ER.)
You could also begin with a character growing up in the world, and having it explained – like Suldrun in Jack Vance’s Lyonesse series.
Thanks for the pic patriziasoliani
What would you say to Henry? Are there any books you would add to his reading list? Share in the comments!
Dystopias, Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Fahrenheit 451 are among the books and topics tackled in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life. Out now in all formats, including (ahem) combustible.
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It’s a writer’s prerogative to change their mind. All the time. It’s called revision. We’re steering the story one way, then a stronger idea comes along, or a development proves impossible, or an editor or beta reader persuades us to do something else instead.
As we cut, add and rearrange, our drafts build up unwanted junk. Here are three ways this might be tripping the reader up.
Plot and character
So we’ve changed our mind about where we’re pushing a character or a plot strand. We may have tidying to do.
When movies do this – particularly if they have to recut after shooting is finished – they have to patch the scenes they’ve already got. Inevitably we’ll see characters worrying about stuff that looks important but goes nowhere – often to irritating effect. But writers can edit in infinite detail. Are your characters making an issue of things that now don’t matter?
Quite often a theme won’t become apparent until we’ve wrangled the book through many drafts, but that doesn’t stop us stabbing in the dark to find it. Language, imagery, dialogue and setting will all reflect what we think the themes are. If we’ve had a few reorientations we might end up with theme schizophrenia. Although that can add up to a rich book, it could also make unholy muddle. Look for echoes of earlier themes when you revise – and decide if you still need them.
A town’s streets show the traces of its history. A road might be crescent-shaped because of a building that disappeared centuries ago. The town is stuck with that – but does your novel have story structures that are more fiddly than they need to be? Do your characters serpentine through the plot because they’re navigating vanished landmarks?
Novel-writing isn’t a science. Our story’s evolutionary dead ends might be like junk DNA – a sequence of instructions that seems to say: ‘grow wings, no don’t grow wings, it’s not a bird any more’. Once thought to be useless to a modern human being, junk DNA is now believed to be important – though what it does is still opaque and mysterious.
By serendipity, your novel’s junk DNA might enrich the themes, or provide quirky, unexpected contrast and relief. (Readers are generous and tend to think you have placed every word deliberately. They don’t know how much irrelevant rubbish passes through a book as well.)
Clutter and clarity
So maybe junk isn’t all bad. Sometimes it’s treasure. Other times, though, it can confuse the reader and clutter the story. Your manuscript will be leaner, more elegant, better honed if you strip it out.
Is your novel carrying the baggage of previous lives? Do you de-clutter your stories?
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- ‘The music of exile’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Kathleen Jones July 23, 2014
- Ghostwriting FAQs: should you get a ghostwriter, do you want to become one? July 20, 2014
- ‘Abhorrent combinations… fear not as the music writes the story for you’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Josh Malerman July 16, 2014
- How to fix a plot hole July 13, 2014
- ‘Music of raw power, pulling back from chaos and feedback’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, David Penny July 9, 2014
- Studying Ray Bradbury: a beat sheet of Fahrenheit 451 July 6, 2014
- ‘Sadness and longing in the wildest pleasures’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rohan Quine July 2, 2014
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