Tuesday, 29 March 2011

3 ways to know your novel’s great before you even write it

It can take years to write a novel. For that kind of time investment you want to be confident it’s going to be worth the effort. Here are three tips to ensure you’re not embarking on a wasted life.

Know the ending

Writers obsess about the beginning of their stories because that’s what will keep an editor/agent/reader reading - it may even make them publish/represent/buy the book - but it’s the ending that will make them remember it. You want some gob-smacking endings? Try Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms or Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. If you’re a reader worthy of the name you will have a handful of favourite novels where the endings still resonate with you, and if you’re a writer worth the name you should strive to achieve that effect in your own work.

But what makes an ending great is not just the ending itself but everything that leads up to it, and what better way to ensure that everything leads up to it by knowing what the ending is before you even start?

Know the start and middle too

Which isn’t the same as knowing the whole book from start to finish. As well as being the classic story telling device of millennia, the three act structure provides a great framework on which to build novel length ideas. For those at the back - Act 1 = start, Act 2 = middle, Act 3 = end. If you have a great ending, a dramatic and compelling opening, and a good idea of how to get from one to the other, you have a great story in the making.

Watch this space for techniques for developing three act structures.

Know what needs to happen, without knowing the why or how

By which I mean, you can know you need particular scenes to punctuate your start, middle and end without knowing the whys and wherefores. In other words, you can know the story points - i.e. the emotional effect that the plot will have on the characters - without knowing the plot.

You want your hero to harbour a big secret that only by addressing in act 3 he’ll gain emotional closure? You have enough - you can worry about what the actual secret is later. You need an epic conflict at the end of act 1 between the protagonist and co-protagonist but don’t know what it is? You will by the time you write there.

And when you have this much you can either break out the index cards and start plotting or just crack on and write - in full knowledge that at the very least it will be a passable story.

8 comments:

  1. I've always thought like this- even before I was writing novels!

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  2. As a plotter, I do more than this. But even pantsers probably have this info in their heads!

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  3. I agree about knowing the end before you start. But with the novel I've just finished, I decided to change the ending at the last moment as I came to write it. You need to retain flexibility.

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  4. Great post, as always James.

    I partly agree with Lexi on needing to remain flexible - everything I've ever written has morphed during the process. But I've also long been fascinated with the concept (a la John Irving)of *writing* the end first, not just knowing it.

    But knowing it would be a start. And this is where I fail miserably every time I come up with a new idea.

    I like the three act concept - those very very bare bones - and think I'll spend some time musing this one over for my latest project (the ending of which is, at present, as elusive to me as a misty horizon).

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  5. Yes, I think you are right, James. I always have the whole novel in my head before I start writing, and usually most of the characters too.

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  6. @Ninetwelve - I wish I was as lucky as you, Nine - I had to learn the hard way!

    @Laura - Yeah, me too - I would then go on and plot it further - perhaps even plot a bit then write a bit then plot a bit...

    @Lexi & @Sandie - completely agree you have to be flexible - if you get a better idea as you're writing you just have to go with it. Sometimes the story doesn't go the way you imagined or the characters develop in different ways so that your original ending seems contrived or inappropriate. Having an ending to aim for though is a great way to begin I think.

    @Outback Writer - thank you and welcome to the blog. Do you plan it all out in writing before you begin, or is all just in your head?

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  7. Knowing the ending first... So True... I can't write a story if I don't know where it's going to end. I always felt that having at least one funny, nicely fleshed-out character is an absolute must! Either the protagonist or the antagonist should be memorable (we all remember the 'good' bad guys, don't we?)

    Great Post!

    Marcel

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  8. Ahh, two of my favourite books and endings. Isn't it pretty to think so?

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