I often think that writing a novel is rather like juggling with jigsaw pieces, and expecting them to connect in the right order. Here’s a partial list:
2. Pace – making sure it is neither too fast nor too slow, and the right pace is applied at the right moments.
3. Dramatic conflict – the driving tension behind the story; the tension between characters, the tensions between events and the characters.
4. Events – the things that happen to the characters in the story, usually broken down as chapters and then scenes
5. Writing style – the mechanics of how the words are assembled and which words are selected, controlling the tone and feel of the book
6. Word length – fitting everything into a specified scale.
7. Audience – at the end of the day, the book is going to be read. Does it entertain? Does it suit the purpose?
Although it’s fun to ‘break rules’, all these elements have to be broadly within the bounds of what the wider readership expects for the novel to work – to be enjoyable for others to read, to capture their interest, to be saleable. Put another way, if you think of your readers as porridge-buyers, and make a mix of water, sugar and oats, people will be getting what they want. To extend the metaphor, the proportions of the ingredients will vary between porridge-makers – and that’s where originality comes in. But you can’t make a slurry of water, cement and rocks and call it porridge – your porridge-buyers won’t want it.
The problem for writers is that the usual novel elements interlock. Want a faster pace? Adjust the style. But what does that to do length? Need more dramatic tension? Add a collision between characters – then ask what that does to character arcs? Thought up a cool ‘scene’? Great – but how does that work with character arcs and dramatic conflict?
There are answers to all these questions – books do get completed, published and enjoyed. Getting to that point is as much a learned technique as any other skill.
Exactly how authors do it varies. My suggestion is to break down these elements – make a grid, table or spreadsheet. Split the key elements of character arc, dramatic conflict and events, individually. Make columns for them. Set the cards associated with each down in each column. The rows across are the things happening simultaneously in the book. Then ask ‘does it work’? Does the character arc fit the drama of the plot? Need adjusting?
Eventually you’ll have a grid that matches character arcs with character dramatic tension and the events you’ve envisaged for the plot. From that you can assign word lengths to sections – get an idea of the intended pace. Chapter and scene structure follow. It’s a matter of iterations, of revision – in effect, of solving a jigsaw puzzle where you have control over the shape of the pieces, to some extent. And I figure by the end of it, the novel will virtually write itself.
That’s one way to plan a novel. There are others. But what about the idea of ‘by the seat of the pants’, free-flow? Some writers swear by it. How does that fit with planning?
I don’t think the two approaches are in tension at all. They work together. Brilliantly. More on that next post.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012