A NOVELIST’S TOOL KIT
Continued From previous post: How to Publish Your Novel by Ken Atchity
Chapter Thirteen: Perfecting Your Craft
Action isn’t the same thing as plot. Your action line is the direction in which your story moves. If you’re writing a tragedy, your story has to move from happiness to unhappiness. If your novel has a happy ending, you have to put your character in a hole and make him dig his way out—you have to start him out unhappy and let him make the journey to happiness. Whatever the case, there has to be a change. Your story has to move from one state to another. If it doesn’t, it will meander, sputter, and lose its drama.
Here are some of the fundamental attributes of your action line:
1.) Conflict: As we discussed, action occurs when your protagonist meets obstacles to his goal. Whether he succeeds or fails with a given obstacle depends on who he is, and on the mythic pattern that is the underpinning of your story.
2.) Turning Points: During the natural course of the story, your protagonist will encounter turning points, so called because they literally spin the story off in a different direction. Your protagonist will come to the first turning point early in the story. It’s the event that launches him off on his mission. The second turning point comes toward the end of the story. It sets the stage for the ultimate confrontation that will culminate in your story’s climax. Both turning points are intimately connected to your protagonist’s motivation.
3.) Plot Twists: Twists, also called reverses, are exactly what they sound like: an unexpected turn of events, or a revelation, that accelerates the action. Your action line doesn’t have to contain twists, but they help. Often your second turning point will be a twist, though they can happen at virtually any time. The twist in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game comes at the very end, and gives the previous climax scene an entirely different meaning.
The trick to writing an effective twist is to make it so that your readers don’t see it coming, but when they look back on it, they couldn’t imagine it happening any other way. There can be no clearer example in recent memory than the stunning revelation in The Sixth Sense, which had film audiences all across the country exclaiming, “How could I have missed that?”
4.) Climax: Your obstacles have been getting tougher throughout the story, but the crisis your protagonist faces at the climax blows all the others away. This queen mother of all obstacles brings your story to its darkest hour, the point which Joseph Campbell in A Hero’s Journey named “the Inmost Cave.” If your protagonist can rise to the occasion and face this challenge, he opens the door for the resolution of his problems.
The triadic shape of all good fiction
All good fiction has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Borrowing from screenwriting, these are in essence your First Act, Second Act and Third Act. Each has its own shape, nature and function. Your First Act brings you from the protagonist’s initial introduction and the setup of the situation to the first turning point that launches your protagonist into his mission. Your middle, or Second Act, the most challenging portion for many writers, shows that your protagonist is developing as he tackles an ever-escalating series of challenges. Your Third Act, your resolution, is the place where your protagonist overcomes his difficulty and achieves his mission.
You’ll need to have these portions of your story clear before you begin to write. But don’t become a slave to your structure. Plot your way through your first draft, then when you revise, throw your outline away and just tell the story.
But how will you know where to begin the action? Some writers think it’s necessary to go all the way back to the birth of their protagonist. But not all occurrences are drama. Drama only begins as soon as something compelling is happening. William Goldman counsels writers to start their scenes as far into the action as they can. I’ve often taught my students to look at their first drafts the way they’d look at a fish they’ve just caught and are about to clean. Just as they’d lop off the fish’s head, they should remove and discard any beginning parts of the story where the drama hasn’t yet begun. You wouldn’t serve inedible parts of the fish to your dinner guests; don’t serve un-riveting parts the story to your readers.
The first and continuous question you must ask yourself as you write is, “how will my readers respond if I tell the story in this order?” The second is just as important: “Do I want them to respond that way?”
How do you decide where to set your story? You pick the location that will enhance the dramatic tension the most. When in doubt, look to your protagonist for answers. What kind of location would showcase his motivation best?
Many writers specialize in a location they know intimately: John Irving’s New Hampshire, Pat Conroy’s North Carolina, Anne Rice’s New Orleans. You may choose to explore your own geographic roots this way. But you’re not limited to your own origins. Whatever you can A.) research and B.) imagine, you can write about. But do meticulous, extensive research on the settings you choose, even if you think you know them.
Scenes as units of drama
All drama unfolds one scene at a time. A scene is the basic unit of drama: Ideally, each scene ratchets the story along one step. A scene has a beginning, middle, and end, just like your entire novel does. They generally look like this:
Beginning: somebody is somewhere.
Middle: something is going on.
End: something happens that does or doesn’t solve the problem.
Your scene should also foreshadow a fourth part: what could happen next? This is how you dovetail your scenes to one another, bypassing the need for a transition.
A single factor determines your novel’s tone: your relationship to your audience. How do you view your narrative position—are you “preaching” it or “offering” it? Are you setting yourself up as an authority to your readers, or are you letting them in on a personal revelation, as you would a friend or confidant? Do you want them to trust what you have to say, or is it more interesting if you deliberately set them up to doubt you? If you’re not sure whether a particular tone is the right one for a given story, try it for a few pages and see if it feels natural. If it doesn’t, let it go and try something different.
These, then, are the essential building blocks of any story: character, action, setting and tone. But how do you make these elements work together to form a great story?
Aristotle addressed this question twenty-four centuries ago, and came up with a single, simple, and completely satisfying answer that is as valid today as it was in his time: unity. In any work of drama, from novel to screenplay to stage play, all the elements must come together to serve one action. In the Iliad, for example, every element serves the same purpose: to deal with the anger of Achilles. Aristotle firmly believed that in the best stories, all the components supported a single plot line.
That’s what makes good fiction so satisfying. It feels like a package. It asks a question, “what would happen if…?” then proceeds to answer it. It has a single clear mission and a definite conclusion.
This why it’s so important for you to get all the elements worked out in your mind before you start to write. Beginning writers suffering from a lack of focus tend to put in too much, because they haven’t yet identified the one line of action that everything else must serve. The best writers put in only what moves the action along in the right direction. They leave room for the readers to fill in the rest with their own imaginations.
To be continued. Check back soon!
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