I've been wondering if I could sum up my thoughts on novel-writing in a single blog post. Turns out I can, it's just a rather long blog post that took me a few days to compose:
So, you want to write a novel? As Lawrence Block suggested, go lie down until the impulse fades.
If that doesn’t work, there’s nothing to do but sit down and hammer out a few pages. Eventually you’ll run out of enthusiasm and ideas. You’ll come to your senses and go give the dog a bath. He really needs it. There’s also expiring milk and you’re about out of fresh vegetables, so a trip to the store is in order.
You’ve learned your first lesson, newbie. Take care of life. Eating, exercise, confabs with friends and family, taking a good walk, listening to music, having sex, bathing, having sex while bathing, having sex while bathing and listening to music, these are the things life is made of, and being of and in the world helps your writing. Believe me. About everything other than putting the boom box next to the tub when you’re having sex.
Anyway, if you’re using writing as an excuse not to do these things, something’s wrong. Writing, even getting published, won’t fix it. As the wonderful Anne Lamott said, being published will just make your “current level of obsession and doubt and self-loathing look like the Good Old Days. Honest.”
So see to nutrition, rest, hygiene, and relationships.
Unless you’re on deadline, but that’s for later.
But then, having lived well that day, suppose you’re in bed or the tub or feeding the cats in the pre dawn or pushing the remains of your lunch around on the plate and you just can’t get the story out of your head. What your characters might be saying to each other keeps echoing in the Eustachian tubes of your imagination, and you think you’d better get up and jot down a few ideas while they’re clear.
Now you’re really in trouble. You probably have a story in there trying to get out.
But maybe you’ve just got this one little idea, based on one of your deepest fears. Thanks to a missed detour sign you’re lost far from home and damn, you screw up while looking at the map and crash the car. No cell towers around, and you don’t have OnStar, and to top it all off you’ve got a bloody nose and a painfully cut lip. But the idea pretty much ends there.
From such tiny acorns grow mighty oaks of stories. You’ve got your three basic elements of a story. There’s a person, you, and that’s a character. There’s a problem with the car. That’s plot. “The middle of nowhere and a long way from where you want to be” is what we in the drama game call setting. That’s all writing a novel is, is deciding when and how to tell about characters, plot, and setting.
The Iron Triangle of Storytelling
Plot, character, and setting are corners joining an iron triangle of story. Each must be connected to the other two. The stronger your connections the better your novel.
I usually tell new writers to work hardest on their plots. If you’ve got compelling enough action in your story, readers won’t mind that your characters aren’t making them forget about Faulkner or that you can’t depict a landscape like Willa Cather. They’re too busy worrying about the bomb that the heroine doesn’t know she has in her trunk going off.
So I’m going to talk plot first. A plot has three pieces: Setup, Complication, and Resolution.
I’ve got some more good news for you, your idea there is a Setup.
With Setup done, you move on to Complication. Complication is simple. I know it sounds like a tautology but it’s true. You just need to figure out ways to make things worse. In fact, that’s all plotting is, making things worse for your character.
The process of plotting consists of creating problems and introducing them to your characters. Problem, meet character, character, meet problem. You’re not going to get along.
Your character is going to do something about the problem. Beat it, solve it, try and get away from it. Just make sure your character acts! Ideally, she'll act in an interesting and unexpected manner. But the key is to do something. Readers don’t like stories about people who are passively blown through life by events. If Rose had been a good daughter and did exactly as her mother said, Titanic wouldn’t have made two billion dollars.
You’ve got to decide what happens in the character’s effort to solve the problem, which will probably lead to all new problems. Repeat until you write “the end.” It’s a bit like Marxist historiography. Thesis and antithesis meet and form a synthesis. Then the synthesis becomes a new thesis to meet a new antithesis.
So let’s go all Marxist on Titanic, since I brought it up. It’s a story partly about class distinctions, after all.
Rose is a girl from a society family. Her problem is she doesn’t like the path in life that’s set for her: rich husband, life of endless parties, balls, dinners and cotillions.
We should all have it so hard. But I digress.
Rose decides to solve the problem in the ultimate expression of teenage drama – a half-hearted suicide attempt. But she meets Jack, who talks her down from the rail.
Problem solved, right?
No. Things just got worse. The initial problem is still there, she's just no longer about to kill herself over it. Furthermore, she's gained a new problem. She falls for Jack. He’s an artist and a wanderer, two things she’s interested in. But her fiancé finds out. Now it’s not just Rose being upset with herself, Rose’s mother and her fiancé are involved. Rose initially solves the problem by giving up Jack, but realizes her mistake and goes back to him. She solves her problems by breaking up with her fiancé in a rather spectacular, though private, fashion. She has Jack draw a nude sketch of her wearing a fabulous diamond. She and Jack run off and make love.
Problem solved, right? Happily ever after?
No. Things just get worse. Several problems hit Rose within a few minutes. The ship hits an iceberg. Rose’s fiancé frames Jack for theft of the diamond. Jack ends up handcuffed on the lower decks, and Rose is on a sinking ship with lifeboats for less than half the passengers and crew.
Now she’s got problems.
Notice how the problems got bigger and more serious as the story moved along? We went from a problem between Rose and herself, to Rose and her family and fiancé, to an entire ship full of people, including Rose and the two men in her life, in peril. At least half are automatically doomed, given the lifeboat situation. Aristotle noted this too, that as the story went along, the drama grew, and nowadays we call it his incline.
Plotting reminds me a schoolyard game I used to play with my gross-minded little chums, sort of a cross between the Billy Crystal’s SNL “Oy, I hate when that happens” shtick and imaginative whatiffery. Mostly it involved painful objects being used as catheters.
“Wouldn’t it suck if____.”
Fill in the rest.
You can break down a lot of famous storylines using my freshly-patented “wouldn’t is suck if _____” analysis.
Wouldn’t it suck if I finally met an ideal man, but hated him at first because he pricked my vanity. Despite this I grew to appreciate him and fell in love at last. Then just when I think things are going to quit sucking, my stupid spoiled whore sister runs off with ideal man’s most hated enemy, shaming my family and possibly destroying my social position.
Wouldn’t it suck if the charming, handsome man I thought I married turned out to be a penniless, or worse, an embezzler, or worse, a murderer. A murderer who decides to off his wife! The suck!
Wouldn’t it suck if I was an English naval captain during the Napoleonic Wars and took my ship to the other side of the freakin’ world to help a Central American madman launch a revolt against Spain, only to find out once the revolt got started that Spain had become England’s ally while I was out of touch with land? And the Spanish and my superiors expect me to fix the mess I created just by doing a great job of following orders?
Wouldn’t it suck if every bird in creation decided to get together and attack people?
Wouldn’t it suck if an unstoppable robot from the future came back to terminate me to keep me from giving birth to a post-apocalypse resistance leader?
Wouldn’t it suck if I were a dragon, and all the sword-swinging heroes of elfdom and dwarfdom were trying to kill me?
Okay, the last one is kind of lame. But you get the idea.
To recap, a story will have three basic parts. Getting your characters together and making them realize the world of suck that’s descending on them is called the Setup. We’ve talked about that for a while now. More worse suck happens, and that’s called Complication. You saw that with Rose and the way her problems got thornier and more deadly. Then the characters are either overwhelmed by the suck or they figure out a way to mitigate, deal with, or eliminate the suck, and that’s the Resolution.
Resolution is easy compared to the rest of your jobs. You’ve just got to sort out the winners and losers and give a hint or two about what comes after. How has the character and how they view their setting been changed by what they’ve been through? Is Kansas “no place like home?” Does Rose survive, and if so, how is she changed by events?
Most of your storytelling will be spent on the more worse suck. That’s been the trend in publishing for a while, shorter setups and resolutions (nothing makes an editor happen than a fairly complete setup on the first page) in favor of a long, riveting complication.
However you decide to make the “worse suck” complication happen, try not to make it the first thing that pops into your head, or too much like anything you’ve seen in a book or movie unless you're playing it for laughs. What bad thing happens in the average R-rated horror movie to women with broken-down cars in the middle of nowhere? Serial killers stop by to help, of course. Sometimes they’re charming, sometimes they’re creepy and off-putting, but they’re definitely serial killers. Or the Children of the Corn wander out of the fields.
Even if you want to have a serial killer show up, you’ve got to figure out a way to switch things around. Maybe have an off-putting guy pull up and help, but just as she accepts his offer of a ride she notices something frightening: he’s got rubber gloves on his dashboard, and a big discarded syringe lying in the pickup bed. What looks like dried blood is caked around the edges of his fingernails. As the heroine sweats out not getting into the truck after all, the county sheriff comes driving down the road. The sheriff gives her a ride into town, explaining that the local vet is a lot better with animals than with people, especially when he’s been up all night with a tough calving.
But then the sheriff doesn’t take her into town. Or to a phone, or a garage. He takes her to his “spread” – which is even more in the middle of nowhere.
Or if you think your audience will see right through that, make your woman with the broken-down car the serial killer. Instead of someone going on a trip, this is a stranger comes to town.
However you decide to complicate matters, you can’t unload the dump truck of despair all at once. Making things worse for the character in your story has to be done right. Like the apocryphal frog in the boiling water, you need to turn up the heat slowly. You don’t want to put the worst suck up front. A stripper spends way more time shimmying behind the pom-poms of her cheerleader costume than removing her g-string, so take a hint from the stripper and save the best for last.
Like Nigel Tufnel’s amp, you save going to eleven for the end, when you need that little extra push. I know Nigel would never start at 1-3, but your story can, then it should move up to 4-6, then towards the end progress up through 7-10. Each time you amp it up the readers need to be shaking their heads saying, wow, and I thought Eloise Q. Heroine had problems before! Remember how things went from poor to bad to worse for Rose? Cameron’s answer for amping it up to eleven was to have Rose and Jack go into the freezing North Atlantic water, far from the lifeboats.
This is called pacing.
Personally, I like giving the readers a good jolt right at the beginning, cranking it to seven or seven point five. It worked for the James Bond franchise for better than twenty movies, why not for me?
But there’s another element to pacing you have to keep in mind. Your reading audience is a lot like a rat dropped into a swimming pool. If he just gets chucked in, he’ll swim for a while and then give up and drown. But if you give him a board to sit on for a while before forcing him to swim again, he’ll swim a lot longer before giving up and drowning. Rats need hope. And cruelty-free animal testing, but I digress.
Readers need that hope too, so they’ll keep swimming through the hardships in your story. A big part of pacing is deciding when to give the readers a break and let something good happen. Allow your characters (both the good guys and the bad guys. Be fair now!) some pleasure – hey, Rose gets her steampunk groove on in good old backseat of car fashion -- some slow, quiet moments in safety (even if it later turns out to be illusory), a victory against the odds here and there. Most people rejoice when your hero sticks the landing.
Things have to go well for the bad guys throughout the story too, otherwise they look ineffectual and unthreatening.
Letting the villains win and putting the screws to your heroes is liberating, you get to get in touch with your Inner Wicked Witch and unleash the flying monkeys on your characters. But one of the jobs of the writer is to make your audience like and be interested in the heroes so they will rejoice if and when they triumph, otherwise they want the flying monkeys to win so they can stop reading. So you’ve got to figure out a way for the audience like the heroes and dislike your villains. Even if you find the bad guys charming and more fun to write than the hero. Make the bad folks into people the audience wishes to either get far, far away from or destroy.
So it’s time to talk character, the second corner in your storytelling triad. Because I’m not particularly original and too lazy to dream up names I’ll use the conventions of Hollywood and categorize characters into groups: actors, supporting actors, minors, and extras. This is your cast.
How big your cast is depends on you. You don’t have a budget, so you can hire as many as you like, but in my experience, the newer the writer the smaller the cast should be.
Hopefully you’ve got some idea for your actors. These are the main heroes and villains of your story: Luke, Leia, Han, and Vader. What they decide to do, and whether they succeed or not is going to move your story along.
Your supporting actors are going to get a lot less time in your story than the main cast. Maybe they’ll be there to give the audience a good laugh, or a good scare, or a nice warm fuzzy of emotional support. They can still be key, after all, who’s the most memorable personage from Silence of the Lambs? To continue my Star Wars analogy, Obi-Wan, C3PO, R2, Chewie, and Grand Moff Tarkin are supporting actors.
Here’s a little author trick: Sometimes it’s better to let your supporting cast completely steal the scene. Let them ham it up, even if they make your protagonist seem a little bland by comparison. It allows the reader to imagine themselves as the hero or heroine meeting these interesting folks.
Finally, there are the minors, who get a scene or two at most. These are Luke’s relatives, various imperial officers, red and gold leaders, Biggs, Wedge, the nasty fellows in the cantina, and of course the garbage monster. They exist to temporarily create a problem or add interest.
Of course you can stick extras in, even if they don’t say anything. They add color and action and versimilitude and sometimes they blow up real good.
With your actors, the first thing you’re going to find out is what they want out of your story, and why they want it. Thou shalt give thy characters reason for acting the way they do, sayeth the writing gods. Motivation, in other words. Of course, what they want at the beginning need not be what they want at the end. See Casablanca. Twice.
But wait, wants aren’t the same thing as needs. I think I remember the prof talking about that distinction in Psych 101, right? Something to do with Maslow? Margaret Mitchell became rich and world-famous distinguishing those two.
On the other hand, there’s something to be said for consistency of motivation, especially with your villains, otherwise Moby Dick wouldn’t be a whale of a tale.
Another important commandment to practice until you can preach it is Steven King’s maxim that every character is the hero of their own life. It’s the rare person who consciously plans what they consider to be evil. In Casablanca the Nazi officer probably saw himself spreading the benefits of German culture and efficiency around the world as he attempted to rein in a vile Czech propagandist.
The other half of the equation is figuring out what the hero is willing to do to get what he wants. How about the villain? Again, this is flexible. As the story spirals out of control, what the hero decides he’s willing to do may change, viz The Untouchables. Or maybe the hero won’t change until either he breaks or his code does, like Lancelot.
Crossing the chasm between wants/needs and moral limits is the actor’s capabilities. Once again, this is not written in stone. Luke’s not ready to do much buy whine and bullseye womp-rats at the beginning of his Star Wars story, but thanks to Kenobi and later Yoda, he grows in stature. Your characters can also grow in ability, given time and training and experience, if your story covers that kind of time frame.
Beware the Mary Sue
Don't make things easy for your characters. If you've got someone who is always the smartest, most beautiful, most athletic person in the room who triumphs because she's just so darn good at everything and everybody likes her and she's got a Barbie dream house only real and an ideal boyfriend who never leaves the seat up what you're writing about is a "Mary Sue." Create one and editors will gleefully put a bullet between the eyes of your publication hopes.
So put in a few flaws and shortcomings.
Characterizing your Characters
But there’s more to a person than just a set of motivations and abilities and flaws. That describes a robot, not a human being. Everyone has a personality that colors how they move through life. Giving your actor or supporting actor or minor character a personality is called characterization. Maybe your characters will be vivid colors and easy-to-read labels, Robert E. Howard style, or maybe they’ll be soft rainwashed pastels with their personalities described in tiny gestures and words, Anne Lamott style, it’s up to you and your tastes as a writer.
So your first job is to come up with a personality to describe. You’ve got to decide what the character is like. Cocky? Gregarious? Shy? Vain? Easygoing? Miserly? Vengeful? Pretentious? Wounded? Dippy? Organized?
All of the above?
Well, pick one, or at most a couple. Then think about it. How is this personality type a good thing? What are the unpleasant side effects? Might any of this move your plot forward?
Let’s say you’re going to introduce a new character in your car broken down scenario, a rural guy in a pickup truck who stops by to help. You decide you’d like him to be cocky. Characterization is just a matter of making him act, talk, and look cocky. How does a cocky guy look? Maybe he cuts the sleeves off all his shirts, like Chachi. Or maybe he walks with a bit of a swagger, and stands so you see the rodeo champion belt buckle. How does a cocky guy talk? Does he roll down the window, holler that it helps if you face forward when driving, and call the accident victim “darlin’” and “beautiful” despite the cut lip? How does a cocky guy act? By gunning his engine and winking before he uses his powerful pickup to pull her car out of the ditch? Your job in describing this character as the book moves along is to reveal his cockiness. Get to the truth. How deep does his cockiness go? When things get serious does he puff up even more, like a rooster getting set for a fight, or does he wilt and pee himself?
I repeat: Get to the truth. That's part of the appeal of writing. You get to tell your truth about life and what makes people tick.
The third corner of the storytelling triangle is your setting.
Setting is comprised of two elements: time and place.
You need to nail down both elements as quickly as possible. Moviemakers have a term for it: the “establishing shot.” This can be as simple as heading your chapters with a time and place, or putting a sentence such as
We know we’re in Chicago’s financial district and it’s the evening after the rush. That’s enough to start the reader off. You can talk about what color the streetlights make people’s skin and the rats in the dumpsters behind the restaurants later.
“With the evening rush over, Chicago’s financial district falls into small-town quiet.”
Your world-building should read like a liberal arts cirriculum: geography, history, anthropology, sociology, psychology. You don't have to go into extreme detail for any of this, just give little snapshots that hint at the larger story behind.
The thing to remember about world-building is to make your world alive. Cultures, institutions, religions, they all are born, grow, thrive, dwindle, and die. An organic world will have elements from all parts of the life-cycle. The world will lay down paths for the characters to follow, traditions for them to keep or break, expectations for behavior. The world will push the plot at times. Screw with the world too much and it strikes back.
One of my favorite bits of worldbuilding is from the movie Firefox, where Clint Eastwood is in Soviet Russia attempting to steal an advanced fighter. Another character warns him that the KGB is like a great sleeping dragon. You can tiptoe past the dragon, and if you're careful, it will sniff you but keep sleeping. Cause any trouble, blunder, or otherwise awaken it and you don't stand a chance. That line was simple, evocative, and then proved out in the story, where the dragon sniffs at Eastwood's character and is later awakened.
A good story often has several worlds – look at all the worlds in Gone With The Wind – the Old South, the Reconstruction South, the way women’s and men’s worlds are divided, the world of the soldiers, the world of the slaves/freedmen.
One of the greatest examples of multiple-worldbuilding I’ve ever read is in the novel Watership Down. It’s our world, yet it’s not. It’s a quiet English countryside, only seen through the eyes of rabbits. Something as simple as real estate development is an apocalypse to the rabbits. A dog running loose in the woods can alter history. The rabbits have their own set of values (food and safety related), their own gods, traditions, beliefs and so on designed to match rather timid creatures whose only defense against their thousand enemies is flight or a safe hole. We visit three fully realized rabbit worlds, the typical one of the home warren, and a sick rabbit world where the rabbits have made an unvoiced, Faustian bargain with a farmer who sets snares, and even a totalitarian warren ruled by a brooding, violent General.
Rabbit habits of feeding and safety are different in each. The rabbits in the sick warren never speak of the snares or those rabbits lost to snares. The rabbits in the totalitarian warren are strictly regimented, organized by scars given at birth, and have a militaristic hierarchy that trains them to be aggressive.
Then there’s the new world the rabbits who escape the doomed warren are trying to build.
Setting boils down to values. What is valued in a particular world and how are you expected to go about getting it? What is allowed, what is encouraged, what is forbidden, what is winked at? You can build entire novels around people who go against the flow, or figure out a way to rechannel the flow itself.
Hopefully by now you’ve got a plot, some characters, and a setting, or better, several settings. I think it helps to put all your ideas down in the form of an outline, so you can see your setup, complication, and resolution on paper, along with the key characters and some setting notes. It will allow you to question your work and may save you a lot of rewriting later. You'll also be able to judge the scale of the problems. Does the story go to 11 at the end, or is it more of a 6, overshadowed by that big 10 in the middle?
Of course things change. As you write, it's a hell of a lot easier to change your outline than to go back and rewrite big sections of text. Mesure twice, cut once.
There are dozens of ways to write outlines, my personal method is to try and summarize the story into a page or two. I've read excellent outlines that go scene-by-scene with key dialogue.
But some people like to write by the seat of their pants. More power to you if you can get it done that way. But don't say you weren't warned.
Time to write that first word. Then the second.
Here’s where the real work begins.
You’ve got to sit down and put a word on paper now. No, I’m not going to do the Monty Python’s Novel Writing Sketch, but when you get right down to it the Pythons are right. You’re going to devour this elephant one bite at a time.
So the first thing you’re going to do is choose a word. There are several types of words.
Nouns – Schoolhouse Rock defines a noun as a person, place, or thing, and that’s good enough for us. Stories are about nouns and how they act on each other. The key to using nouns well is precision in choice of noun. A vehicle can be anything from a bike (itself a pretty vague noun, do you mean a motorcycle or a bicycle?) to a space shuttle to the Sprit of St. Louis. Being incorrect or imprecise, for example saying “boat” when the characters are on a “ship” will annoy much of your audience and make you look like an idiot.
Precision! as Tevya shouts in Fiddler On The Roof. Wait, it was Tradition? Well, pretend he sang precision. Preci-sion. Precision!
Precise nouns mean more to the audience. They allow the reader to draw from their own experiences as they follow the story. They’re not just painting pictures in their heads, they’re smelling what’s cooking in the kitchen or what’s decomposing under the breezeway. They’re feeling the jungle humidity or gasping in the thin air on the mountainside. You can say your character ate a piece of fruit, but “fruit” doesn’t create a very solid image in the mind of the reader, does it? Is there a particular color or taste or texture to the word “fruit”? You need more information. Apple or orange or grape? Say that the character ate an unripe banana and all sorts of associations get in the readers head, the sharp taste, the firmer texture, the fainter smell. . . and help them along with reminders.
There’s a subset of nouns called pronouns “he/she/it” and so on that are quick and easy words to use in place of our noun. They’re handy but they’re the very devil, they’ll trip you up and leave your sentences unclear. Whenever you use one, be sure that it’s absolutely clear who or what the pronoun refers to.
Verbs – verbs are the action in your story. Once again, the more precise you can get, the easier it is for the reader to experience. “Dick assaulted Jane” may be perfectly true, but it doesn’t allow the reader to paint as precise a picture as “Dick stabbed Jane.”
Dick kissed Jane lets you know that he kissed her. Dick pecked Jane has different implications. Dick frenched Jane has different implications still, as did Dick air-kissed Jane. A kiss is not just a kiss. All these variations in verb tell you something about Dick and his feelings for Jane at that moment in your story. He might love her deeply, but he’s preoccupied. He might be feeling guilty. He might be feeling randy. All these things could change the verb you might use to depict the kiss.
Sometimes a verb just can’t tell the whole story. You can help it out with an adverb. Adverbs modify verbs to let you know how the action was carried out. Dick passionately kissed Jane tells a different story than Dick kissed Jane absently. But you’ve got to watch adverbs -- they’re a handy and perfectly valid tool, in fact they’re such an easy-to-use tool that they can lead to laziness and wordy writing.
Let’s say Dick is walking down the street. You want to show him in a rush. So you could say
“Dick walked rapidly down the street.”But that’s having two words to do the work of one.
“Dick hurried down the street”is better in a lot of ways, because it tells you Dick is in a hurry; it tells you something about Dick’s state of mind.
Verbs give you fantastic opportunities to let the reader know a characters mood, state of mind, or habits.
“Dick marched down the street”tells you something about Dick – he’s determined, right? He’s going to take care of business when he reaches wherever he’s going. Or maybe Dick does everything in life with military snap-to. If Dick ambles down the street he’s in a different mindset entirely, right? What about if Dick wanders down the street? What if he floats down the street? Assuming the street isn’t flooded, he’s in a full-blown Gene Kelly-on-rollerskates wonderful mood.
Your last type of word is adjectives. Just like adverbs modify verbs, adjectives modify nouns. I’m way less strict when it comes to adjectives, they add color and life to nouns when used properly. I love color and life. Just make sure you’re not using themunneccessarily because you haven’t used a precise noun. “Jane ate a yellow oblong curved fruit” is a clumsy way of saying “Jane ate a bananna.”
You're ready to write a sentence
Words are the building blocks of sentences. There are all sorts of sentences, short, long, simple, complex, compound…you had this in grade school. I hope. The basic thing to remember about sentences is to make them clear, by chosing precise words (see above) and presenting them in a readable style.
It also helps to vary them. Mix up short and long, simple and complex.
Sentences can also be used to set a tempo for your action. Longer sentences slow things down a little, giving the reader time to savor and reflect on all the detail your presenting. They give the reader more to absorb. Short pops.
When depicting fast-moving action, a fight or a chase or whatever, it’s best to keep your sentences short and vivid. Pay particular attention to your verbs in action scenes.
A good sentence has clarity and precise meaning, regardless of length. A sentence might mean something to your brain, your eyes, your ears, you can even evoke smells. Work lots of sensory detail into your sentences. It puts readers in the story. Dick shouldn’t just grab a beer from the fridge, he should grab a cold beer from the fridge, and it should instantly go wet in Dick’s hand in his hot apartment kitchen. Tell us how it tastes to Dick after his exhausting encounter with Jane and all those trips down that same sorry street.
Try to avoid passive voice when writing your sentences. Passive voice is when you make the object of the sentence the subject, as in the classic politico-speak “mistakes were made.”
You want to describe who is doing what, not what is happening to whom. It’s better to say “rain fell on the trees” than “the trees were wetted by rain.” You’re adding extra verbs and needlessly complicating things.
There’s nothing absolutely wrong with passive voice. It’s grammatically correct and has its place. There are times when you might want to use the passive voice, when you want to slow things down in your story, show time passing, paint a picture artfully. But they’ll be rare, and you’re almost always better off using the active, just for clarity’s sake.
Precision! Sing it with me. Snap your fingers and dance, because now you’re getting it.
The Art of the Paragraph
Sentences are the building blocks of paragraphs. While sentences are all about clarity and meaning, paragraphs are all about organization. The paragraph is the most basic tool for presenting your story in an interesting and lively manner.
A paragraph is simply a collection of related sentences. A paragraph can be as short as a one-word line of dialogue. I’ve read paragraphs running for pages. Not a pleasant experience.
How you organize paragraphs is an important part of your writing. It allows you to add weight and emphasis. Shorter paragraphs, like shorter sentences, speed things up and stand out.
Let’s say Jane gets the drop on Dick. She draws a revolver from her purse, points it at Dick, and even pulls back the hammer so she can fire in a split second.
Crying and trembling, she reached into her purse as Dick felt for his handkerchief. She pulled a chrome revolver and pointed it at him with a newly steady hand. The hammer clicked as she cocked it.
Even from across the desk Dick felt the barrel of the gun, a phantom finger pressing just above his heart.
All these actions describing Jane pulling the gun are related, so they can be put in a paragraph together. I started a new paragraph with Dick’s reaction to the appearance of the gun, though there’s no real rule that says I have to, it just feels right to my taste.
Let’s say I wanted to give particular emphasis to cocking the gun, to highlight to the reader that she probably means to shoot, or she’s expecting some kind of reaction from Dick and wants to be ready to kill him in a split-second. I’d give that its own paragraph, to let the reader know that detail is extra-important.
Crying and trembling, she reached into her purse as Dick felt for his handkerchief. She pulled a chrome revolver and pointed it at him with a newly steady hand.
The hammer clicked as she cocked it.
Even from across the desk, Dick felt the barrel of the gun, a phantom finger pressing just above his heart.
A few guidelines for paragraphs:
- For clarity’s sake, whenever someone new speaks, start a new paragraph.
- Whatever you’re describing in the first sentence of a paragraph should be supported by the rest of the paragraph. I wouldn’t write about Jane pulling a gun on Dick and then spend the rest of the paragraph talking about what the cat on top of the file cabinet is doing, unless its diving out of the way at the sight of the gun.
- Longer paragraphs usually require a more skilled reader.
Scenes and Sensibility
Paragraphs are the building blocks of scenes. If sentences are all about clarity and paragraphs are organization, a scene is where you show off your storytelling.
A scene is a little mini-story within a novel. They will usually have their own setup, complication, and sometimes a resolution. For reasons of suspense, you might decide to leave off the resolution of the scene to make the reader breathless to move on to the next scene or chapter, but be wary, the effect can get tiresome when used repeatedly.
A scene needs to have a reason for being in your novel. It should either advance the plot, develop a character, or depict some important element of your setting. Ideally, it should do two or even three of these things in the interest of economy.
This is not to say that you need to present the reason for the scene’s existence with twinkling Broadway lights saying THIS IS THE POINT I WANT YOU TO GET. Sometimes you’ll hide an important detail or factoid in other business that seems more important at the time. This is what makes the really good mystery writers the marvels that they are. I said before writers are kind of like strippers. They’re also Three-card Monte operators at times.
Scenes should always contain some element of conflict or change. Conflict and change are interesting. If a scene has neither, either yank it or put some in. Sew doubt or clear things up, add a new character or reveal a change in an old one… think of each scene as a conveyor belt in a Buggs Bunny cartoon, where Daffy goes in one end of the machine looking like a duck and comes out pressed and trimmed into a saxaphone. A scene has to develop your oveall story in some way.
When you approach writing a scene there’s always some business you have to get out of the way at the beginning of each scene. You’ve got to let the reader know if time has passed or location has shifted since the conclusion of your previous scene. A lot of thriller writers like to do this in the simplest manner possible, by giving the time and place of each scene, like a wire service header.
Warsaw, June 12, 3pm
While I don’t do this myself, I like the simplicity of this approach.
Scenes are the building block of novels. You'll write scene after scene after scene until you've finished your resolution and it's time to write those wonderful words
The feeling of accomplishment is worth all the effort, believe me.
(Notice I left out chapters. Chapters are certainly important, but where you put chapter breaks is very much a matter of your own personal style so I’m hesitant to give rules. Or even advice. I think if you’ve got multiple point-of-view characters in your novel, you should probably separate points of view by chapter, unless you really want the action moving fast and furious, but even then you should insert a line break when shifting your POV. You can let everyone know that you absolutely want a line break by typing
in a line of its own)
Which brings me to point of view. If I want to leave you with one piece of advice as a writer, it’s to pay particular attention to point of view.
Point-of-view is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make in telling your story. Through whose eyes will we see this story?
Limit those pairs of eyeballs.
I don’t have anything against multiple point of view novels, there are many wonderful examples out there. I love Thomas Harris’s structure in Red Dragon, where after a good deal of time seeing the effects of Francis Dollarhyde’s actions through the investigator studying the case (and a quick bounce into Hannibal Lecter’s POV as he seeks revenge against that same investigator) he spends a few chapters in Dollarhyde’s POV so we can see how the monster was made. It’s chilling and heart-rending.
POV and its uses would be another few thousand words on this post. Honestly, I don’t have the experience in writing multiple point of views to be of much help. Generally, though, if you’re going to skip around between people keep it clear and organized (George R.R. Martin names his chapters after whoever they’re depicting, that’s a good system). I think it’s best to write in the POV of the principal actor in the scene or chapter, or from the POV of whoever has the most to lose from the scene’s outcome.
There’s a reason Peter Benchly opens Jaws with Chrissy’s POV as she takes her ill-fated moonlight swim off Amity Island. And it made a hell of a setup.
As a kind of appendix, here are some more of my thoughts on writing:
Baseball diamonds and story plotting
Anchoring your story
Aliens, Story Beats, and the Structure of Sub-Plots
Tell, don't show
Characterization through verbs
Setting (Black Gate)
22 Thoughs on writing
Drafting vs. Editing