The Birth of a Novel
Part 2: Creating Structure
Your nascent story is just a smattering of paragraphs, ideas that are evolving. You don’t see how you’ll possibly have time to take on a serious writing project, but you set that consideration aside. You may have a demanding day job, a family, no special training, or a charming garret in which to stare dreamily out the window in wait for your muse. Welcome to the club.
Nevertheless, the idea that won’t leave you alone continues to develop. The character you keep seeing in your mind’s eye now has a form and some distinctive attributes. Perhaps she has a wicked sense of humor and you hear her low voice from time to time. You’re becoming familiar with her dilemma.
One day, on your lunch hour, you write a one-page synopsis of the general story line. The story is about a redheaded diplomat and her rascally dog, the terrible fix she’s in, how she got into it, and how she gets out of it. You describe her nationality, the time span of the events, the location, and general action of the story.
It percolates. The next day you expand it a little, writing for 20 minutes. You do this again the next day, and the next. There’s no deadline, no need to tell anyone about it or worry about it. It’s not a source of anxiety, but one of pleasure.
The events of the story become clearer in your mind. You’re not writing the story itself. You are writing about your story, as though it is a series of events you are watching.
As the plot materializes, problems present themselves. You will see the need for certain characters to be created in order to perform specific functions in the story. Perhaps you start a second document which lists the characters and their relationships to each other, as they come to you.
Ideally, your protagonist will have a full personal history in your mind, although you may only be recounting part of her life. The more intimately you know her, the more life you will breathe into her movements, her speech, her motivations, and those scenes in which not much is said but much is conveyed.
You may be surprised by now how 20 minutes of writing per day adds up. You may devote a lunch hour to it every other day, or write when the baby is napping, or set your alarm earlier so you can write first thing in the morning when the house is quiet. The more pleasurable the experience feels, the more eager you will be to get to it. Don’t think about your obstacles. Think about the story.
Consider the sequence in which the story will best be told. Will the chapters skip around in time or be chronological? Who will tell the story? Will it be told from an omniscient viewpoint, showing the characters’ thoughts? Will the viewpoint shift from character to character? How old is the storyteller? Why are they telling it? Will your story be character-driven or action-driven?
You decide to block out the action of each chapter in a detailed outline. Like planning the physical movements of actors on a stage, you visualize your characters experiencing the events in your mind. Plot glitches and areas for research become obvious in this process.
The more thoroughly you work out the roadmap of your story, the more easily words will come when you begin composing the manuscript. You’ll stand in your characters’ shoes, feel and see as they do. Surprising things will happen. Your story will come alive. You will have insights and be energized. The visceral presences of your characters will step out onto the page.
Each novel goes somewhere, is a quest for something. Characters change and cope with conflicts. What will the message of your story be? What are its themes? What do you need to know more about in order to tell it best? Reach down deep. If a novel is worth writing, it’s worth writing well. You can do it!
Next segment: Letting the Story Out.
Jennifer Dwight worked as a litigation paralegal, trainer and author for 33 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has presented seminars, written and published numerous articles, a 60-segment fiction serial (The Dissemblance of Marie Mirabeau), short stories and three paralegal books (The Nuts & Bolts of Civil Litigation Practice, The Indispensable Paralegal During Discovery and Law Firm Life for the Legal Assistant). Her suspense novel, The Tolling of Mercedes Bell, will be published in May, 2016 by She Writes Press. She welcomes comments through her website, www(dot)authorjenniferdwight(dot)com.