This was originally published on Write Anything, October 23, 2008.
Welcome back to Write Anything NaNoWriMo workshop week!
*taps monitor* Are you awake? Are you daydreaming? I hope you’re daydreaming about your NaNoWriMo project because guess what?
We start in less than 48 hours!!!
No worries, right? *gulp*
If you’re just tuning in (welcome!), we’ve been talking about various aspects of beginning a novel-length story this week. We’ve covered finding ideas, setting, character, point of view, and plot.
Today, we’ll cover constructing scenes – from start to finish – and tomorrow, I turn the floor over to you and you get to share what sort of progress you’ve made thus far and offer any NaNoWriMo advice.
Let’s get started …
Again, I will be referencing Plot & Structure – Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish by James Scott Bell because in my opinion, this is one of the best books about plot on the market. If you haven’t checked it out, seriously, dude, look at it. It’s good.
Most readers judge whether they will A. continue reading the story, or B. like the story within the first ten pages of reading the story.
So tease your readers, make them want to stick around and read the rest of your story with a killer beginning.
THE BEGINNING of your novel actually performs several tasks:
1. Get the reader hooked.
2. Establish a bond between the reader and the Lead character.
3. Present the story world – tell us something about the setting, the time, and the immediate context.
4. Establish the general tone of the novel. Is this to be a sweeping epic, or a zany farce? Action packed or dwelling more on character change? Fast moving or leisurely paced?
5. Compel the reader to move on to the middle. Just why should the reader care to continue?
6. Introduce the opposition. Who or what wants to stop the Lead from obtaining his/her goal/objective?
First impressions are everything when it comes to tempting people to read your novel. Blow your first impression and you’ll have twice the work to get readers’ attention.
Bell suggests the following to grab readers:
Start your opening lines with the character’s name (Bell suggests looking at some of Koontz’s work – he’s the master of killer opening lines. I agree). In addition to introducing the reader to your character right off the bat, make something happen to that character, “and not just something ominous or dangerous. An interruption of normal life.”
Give your readers motion, of something that is about to happen or has happened. If you do this, it’s likely your reader will want to stick around to find out what happens next.
We’ve all heard it – in media res – in the middle of things. Start your story in the middle of some sort of conflict. Using dialogue, as in an interrogation, is a good example of this.
“We bond with the Lead through his deep feeling of a universal emotion.”
Suggest there is a not-to-be-missed story about to unfold.
A good example of attitude is The Catcher in the Rye. The character’s voice is almost defiant and blase about telling his story.
“The use of prologues is a venerable one, used by all sorts of writers in many different ways. But the most effective prologues do one simple thing – entice the reader to move to chapter one.”
Personally, I’m a huge fan of prologues, both in reading and writing. In fact, I plan on starting my NaNoWrimo project with a prologue. And on a side note: I bought Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight today and though the prologue is short, it’s powerful. Here’s an excerpt from Twilight’s preface:
I knew that if I’d never gone to Forks, I wouldn’t be facing death now. But terrified as I was, I couldn’t bring myself to regret the decision. When life offers you a dream so far beyond any of your expectations, it’s not reasonable to grieve when it comes to an end.
The hunter smiled in a friendly way as he sauntered forward to kill me.
Brilliant. That definitely makes me want to keep reading.
Bell goes on to explain these techniques in detail – it would behoove you to read his suggestions. Again, the beginning? Can gain, or lose, your readers. Hone up on it and be aware that it’s crucial if you want to jerk the reader out of his/her reality and into your story.
All of your hard work will (should) compel the reader to move on to THE MIDDLE.
Bell says, “What you do in Act II, the middle, is write scenes – scenes that stretch the tension, raise the stakes, keep readers worried, and build toward Act III in a way that seems inevitable.”
Bell offers some suggestions on keeping the middle of your story interesting and moving forward.
What is the Lead’s ultimate obstacle? To stay alive.
And it’s not all about just physical death, the Lead could have an aspect of themselves die on the inside, too. Or even something die in their professional life, like they are denied a promotion, or they are demoted, or they are involved in a scandal that puts the entire company in jeopardy.
The Opposition (which Bell prefers to call the antagonist because not all antagonists are evil), should be stronger than the Lead. Why? Because if they are easily matched, then why should the reader worry?
And don’t forget to write your opposition with an empathetic view – it just makes for a better character.
An adhesive is any strong relationship or circumstance that holds people together.
“If the Lead can solve his problem simply by resigning from the action, the reader will wonder why he doesn’t do so. There needs to be a strong reason for the Lead to stick around, to keep the characters together throughout that long middle.”
Here are a few tips on making a strong adhesive:
- Life and Death – staying alive is essential to one’s well-being.
- Professional Duty – a cop can’t just walk away from his assigned case.
- Moral Duty – a mother will fight to the death in order to get her child back.
Obsession – when you’re obsessed by something, then you’re just compelled to have it
Bell says to “ARM yourself for confrontation.”
ARM stands for Action, Reaction, More action. It is the fundamental rhythm of the novel. Think about it. Unless your Lead character is doing something, you have no plot. Plot results from the action of the character to solve the problems in front of him, all with the aim of gaining his desire.
Action requires that the character has decided upon an objective and that he has started toward it. This action must be opposed by something or the scene will be dull. So pick an obstacle, an immediate problem to overcome.
Bell goes on to explain how to stretch the tension, how to raise the stakes, how to energize a lethargic middle, and how to trim an overweight middle. Again, all GREAT tips to help you get past the middle hump.
A weak ENDING can ruin an otherwise wonderful book.
“A great ending does two things above all else: First, it feels perfect for the kind of novel it is appended to. Second, it surprises the reader. It is not so familiar the reader has the feeling he’s seen it somewhere before.”
Why are endings so hard? Because the novelist is like a plate spinner, you know, the guy who spins a dozen plates all at the same time while making sure none of them drop?
“Your plot will have lots of plates spinning by the time you get to the end. You need to get them off safely. You need a little flourish. And you need to do it in a way that is not predictable.”
Maintain the tension in the story until the last possible moment, then give your reader a knockout ending.
But in addition to the knockout scene, you need to give your reader a final scene in which something from the hero’s personal life is resolved.
Choose Your Ending:
1. The Lead gets his objective, a positive ending
2. We don’t know if the Lead will get his desire – an ambiguous ending.
3. The Lead loses his objective, a negative ending.
Don’t forget to tie up any loose information. And only you, the writer, can know if the information is important enough to wrap up. Missing pants are probably not that important. But missing money could be. If the loose information is important enough, you’ll most likely need to write an additional scene. This may entail some extensive rewriting – too bad, do it anyway. The majority of readers do not care for unresolved issues.
If it’s minor information that’s flapping in the wind, it’s probably enough to have a character simply explain it away.
You want to leave your readers with a last page that makes the ending more than satisfying. You want it to be memorable, to stay with readers after the book is closed.
Working to make your last page (memorable) … is worth every ounce of your effort. It’s the last impression, what psychologists call the recency effect. Your audience will judge your book largely by the feeling they have most recently, namely, the end. Leave a lasting impression and you will build a readership.
Whew! That’s it! I hope this week proved insightful for you. I also hope it got you excited about writing your novel for NaNoWriMo. Keep all of these things we’ve talked about this past week in your mind, but the bottom line is TO WRITE your story. Try not to think about it too much. Knowing all of this information is great, but the bottom line is, do what feels right for you and your story.
Next month is all about quantity, not necessarily quality. Get your words down on paper first, then you can go back and polish later.
It’s hard to polish something that isn’t there. 🙂
Thank you for sticking it out with me! If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo this year, look me up! I’ll be giving updates about my writing progress next month, so stick around!