The essential elements of a marketable novel author Janice MacDonald teaches in her writing course are:
- Sense of place
- Interesting characters
- Compelling dialogue (she’s English)
- Strong storyline (one with a logical pattern)
- Appropriate pacing
- Distinctive voice
- Particular point of view
- Slowly revealed secret or answer (the presentation of information)
Ms. MacDonald refers to these as the “Furnishings.” She’s speaking of the traditional novel or genre novel. If you’re looking to be the next James Joyce, then I’m afraid your on your own. I guess because I’m a frustrated interior designer and rarely leave furniture in one spot for more than a year, I visualizing the elements of selling fiction as furnishings for the structure that’s my novel. It somehow makes them less intimidating.
Defining the Fiction Writing Furnishings
The Hook or Theme of the Novel
To quote Ms. MacDonald, “The hook is what gives readers clues as to what the story is about, whose story it is…” Is this a journey of profound universal human need, such as love or fear of loneliness? What happened? The theme is the duct tape holding all the elements together into a cohesive human story. Ideally, the theme is a universal one appealing to a wide readership. There’s often a secret or question to be revealed and a puzzle or dilemma to be solved.
There needs to be a rational progression and development; one event must lead to the next with an ever-increasing sense of urgency or tension. Overall, the story structure must lead to an overall theme or objective in which, in the end, the total picture is revealed (but not all in the last few pages and pulled out of a hat like a magician’s rabbit). For the conclusion to satisfy, it needs to be consistent with the reader’s expectations.
And finally, the story must match the intended audience and genre.
Sense of Place
The atmosphere and location must match the mood and genre of the novel. In some situations, the place is almost a character in the story. For example, the isolated hotel in The Shining or the Thames in Three Men in a Boat. But the story needs to be anchored in a location that feels real to the reader.
It’s the characters responses to an event that drives the plot and the conflict, not the other way around. It should feel the same as real life. Something happens and we do something in response to whatever happens which causes something else to happen.
For example, Sam wakes up late because the alarm didn’t go off which makes him angry (which tells something about Sam’s character — he’s angry, not fearful or accepting). His response is to slam things including the medicine cabinet door which causes the glass to break and cut his foot. His response doesn’t change, he becomes angrier and more reckless in his haste to get to work which leads to his rear-ending an unmarked police car and so and so on. If Sam were to wake up late because the alarm didn’t go off and take a deep breath, repeat a relaxation mantra for a count of ten and then call his office to let them know he’s on his way, we see him as a completely different character.
Characterization is the result of what a character thinks, feels, says and most importantly does.
Characterization is also presented by what others think, feel or say about another character.
Every major character should have a past, or backstory, that has shaped him/her into the person he/she is — however, while you need to know the characters complete backstory, you don’t need to tell your reader everything. The reader only needs to know the backstory that directly relates to the present storyline.
The best plot conflicts come from specific, opposing, internal facets of two well-drawn characters that put them in conflict, often a difference in values or beliefs, instead of artificial plot constructs that force the protagonist and antagonist to take opposing sides.
Readers care about well-developed characters with whom they relate or find compelling. A large goal or life-threatening circumstance does not guarantee reader interest.
Know the goals of your characters, especially your protagonist and antagonist. What are the specific, concrete situation or object do they each need? What events and actions are keeping them from getting to their goal? They must be willing to sacrifice, possibly everything, to reach their goals. Unfortunately, there goals will appear to them to be mutually exclusive.
Plot tension is created as struggle between the protagonist and the antagonist (which could even be something like the weather as in The Perfect Storm) increases in stakes and consequences with each choice made and action taken by the protagonist that’s met by the antagonist. Eventually, the conflict reaches a breaking point or climax.
Plot your story so that at each major turning point, where the protagonist makes a critical decision or choice, something happens to raise the stakes, giving your primary characters more to lose, even when they appear to win.
The protagonist goal should be sympathetic and convincing enough to create a desire on the reader’s part to see the protagonist achieve his/her goal.
Tips on Compelling Dialog
In a 2 character scene, it’s unnecessary to attribute every line of dialog to identify the speaker. Indicate the speaker every 6 plus lines and do so sometimes by a characters action during the conversation.
Keep in mind Elmore Leonard’s Rule #3 in his 10 Rules for Writing: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.”As Leonard explains, “The line of dialog belongs to the character. The verb is the writing sticking his nose in.”
And Rule #3 is immediately followed by Rule #4: “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said,’ he admonished, gravely. To use an adverb in this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.”
While I’m not quite as adamant as Mr. Leonard about the adverb, I’ll point out that using an adverb to modify an attribute is telling the reader the characterization instead of showing it. It’s lazy writing. Ideally, the dialog itself or the character’s actions should convey the underlying emotional intent.
Use too little dialog and the story loses its immediacy. Dark, grey pages of long paragraphs indicate your doing more telling than showing, more talk than action.
Use too much dialog and the story may lose its connection for the reader. It’s like listening to a movie without the images to clarify place, tone and character nuance (you need those Cary Grant double-takes or the scenes aren’t that funny). And in print, you don’t even have the soundtrack to help you figure out the emotional tone of a scene!
Try to make each character sound different. Use dialog to develop & distinguish characters. Word choice and sentence length convey character. “Who ya want?” and “To whom do you wish to speak?” create completely different images in our imaginations.
Good dialog should sound natural (for the character).
Avoid excessive dialect, stereotypes, heavy accents. And uh, like, uhm, this, like, includes uhm, interjections, you know? Think of them as seasons in the kitchen — just a dash is enough.
Read your dialog aloud. You may even want to record it and listen to it. Does it sound natural? Does each character have their own voice?
Strong storyline (one with a logical pattern)
The plot is basically a series of incidents, resulting from the characters’ responses to an event in their efforts to achieve a desire or goal, that enable your characters to work through the challenges they face.
Each scene needs a purpose that propels both the internal and external story.
Janice MacDonald’s suggested techniques for developing your storyline:
- Storyboarding — escalating tension moving towards turning points. (Check out my free storyboard templates in PDF format in the post Fiction Writing Plot Development Storyboards)
- Break the story into scenes. One formula is: a 100,000 word book = 20 chapters at about 5,000 words per chapter divided into 3 scenes per chapter.
- Create a list of twenty ideas for scenes and plot developments. The first 3-4 come easily and the next 5-6 may spur ideas for other scenes.
- Try brainstorming.
- Ask why?
- Ask what if?
- Create a storyline (story arc)
- Write a synopis which becomes your selling tool as well as your working guideline.
The pace of the scene should match the action and purpose of the scene. Longer, compound, complex sentences create a slower pace. Short, simple sentences are snappy and quick. Narrative description usually slows the pace. Dialog usually quickens it. When things are moving slower, paragraphs and sentences can be longer. When things are happening quickly, there should be a lot of white space on the page because of short, sharp paragraphs or dialog.
The book itself should have an overall pace (part of its voice) but contain a mix of faster and slower scenes.
Write using an appropriate yet unique voice for the narrative. What do we hate most about majority of text books (aside from being forced to read them and then tested on what we read)? Why do we find them so boring? Because they don’t have a distinctive voice. They’re all written in that bland, generic, corporate voice. It’s why so many of us fall asleep reading them. It’s like listen to someone drone on and on in a monotone.
In her book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (P.S.), Francine Prose discusses the problem of voice with this recommendation:
…the question of voice and of who is telling the story (should the narrator be first or third person, close or omniscient?) when in fact the truly problematic question is: Who is listening? On what occasion is the the story being told, and why?
- If you’re having trouble finding your distinctive voice for a story, try telling it to someone else (my cat is a good listener).
- Or try writing it as it were telling it in a letter (e-mail) to your best friend.
- Another technique for finding your voice is to write a rough draft or synopsis in first person. It will often let you see the natural tone of the story.
Be sure that the voice uses the right tone for the story. Imagine Titanic filled with pratfalls and site gags. Now try to imagine Elmore Leonard writing War and Peace or Tolstoy writing Get Shorty. Just reading a few chapters of each of those will give you a could understanding of a distinctive voice!
Particular point of view
James N. Frey , author of How to Write a Damn Good Novel: A Step-by-Step No Nonsense Guide to Dramatic Storytelling (How to Write a Damn Good Novel) (an excellent book with a wonderful chapter on viewpoints) defines as
where the narrator stands in relation to the characters: as an unseen eyewitness acting as objective reporter; as a sort of divine know-it-all, able to read the thoughts and feelings of the characters; or as another character in the story.
A single view point is easiest to handle, but multiple points of view can build tension and suspense. If using multiple viewpoints, its best to keep a single view point throughout the scene.
Frey also states:
To select the proper viewpoint, ask yourself not “what viewpoint?” but rather, “who can tell this story the best? the viewpoint you choose reflects the narrative voice and it is the narrative voice and not the viewpoint per se that is crucial.”
Slowly revealed the secret or answer (the presentation of information)
Basically, this means critical information about the character or to the plot should be doled out in small portions. Huge chunks of undigestible information and background choke your storyline dead.
If you’ve ever read a story and found yourself saying, “Of course! I remember someone mentioning that way back in the beginning of the story.” then the author slipped the critical information in correctly. On the other hand, if you’ve found yourself at the end of novel ranting, “Wait a minute. Where did this come from? No one’s mentioned anything about this before!”, the author dropped the ball.
One the masters of slipping all the critical information painless to the reader is fantasy satirist Terry Prachett (Terry Pratchett’s titles). (He’s also a master of distinctive voice and multiple viewpoints.) In his title, Men at Arms, Pratchett has a poignant scene where one of his protagonist, Vimes, returns to his old neighborhood to gather evidence from a home where an old woman and a baby have died. His remembrances of his childhood and his game of hopscotch appear to be nothing more than a bit of narrative description and characterization leading up to the coffins of the dead being carried to burial. But, in fact, Pratchett uses this small scene to show us Vimes underlying character and motivation, innocuously explore a very deep theme, provide motivation for Vimes next move — and slip in the critical piece of information needed for the climax. And he still manages to include some humor. Not bad for what appears to be a small break scene.