How to write a novel

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themakcompany
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Thu Oct 08, 2009 5:08 pm Post

I am struggling with a screenplay idea and have decided it may be best to try it as a novel. I have had some success as a screenwriter but have never written a novel. Can anyone explain how to structure a novel or even begin one? I've looked at a lot of books and they talk about plot points etc. but they don't really show a structure. Whereas screenwriting books show various ways to structure a screenplay and structure is a craft you work hard to learn. What about the novel?
MAK

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Thu Oct 08, 2009 5:34 pm Post

I don't think you can go at writing as though it were building furniture.
In that craft, there are pattern books that show how to make a scroll or corner.
You have to start with a story you want to tell, and maybe some ideas to deliver.
These can take many kinds of formal patterns.
Like that of a quest: going out, encountering hazards, returning home.
Reading myths and folklore is a good idea; those are some of the earliest stories.
Maybe also the writings of Joseph Campbell, a student of mythic patterns.
In many novels, structure means the arrangement of scenes
Signalled by shifts of time and place.
Then, along that scheme, the characters tend to grow or change
Or the author reveals and conceals knowledge.
So, when reading you might track Where and When the plot goes.
And Who or What it presents, and Why.

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themakcompany
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Thu Oct 08, 2009 6:04 pm Post

Thanks. I was wondering as with screenplays there is a formal structure to follow and everyone follows it and calls it something else. I guess there is nothing like that with novels? You just write and see where it goes? What makes the end of a chapter?
MAK

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Jaysen
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Thu Oct 08, 2009 6:23 pm Post

themakcompany wrote:Thanks. I was wondering as with screenplays there is a formal structure to follow and everyone follows it and calls it something else. I guess there is nothing like that with novels? You just write and see where it goes? What makes the end of a chapter?

These kinds of things do exist (I have never managed to get past the introduction though) and if you read a bit you will start to recognize the authors that use these formats. I find most of the books written this way … sterile? … after a book or two.

As to "seeing where it goes" and "what make the end of a chapter" those are things that I think make certain authors distinct. I know that some folks here outline and plan the snot out of a work. Others just put "A in C"† and figure it all out later. The planners and not-so-planners both have to deal with changes as they work. This is where scriv really starts to shine though.

Remember, I am not an author. I am barely sentient, so smart folks will probably tell you to ignore what I am about to say.

I find that the "A in C" method seems best to me. I don't worry about chapters, but just puke it all out on the screen. Each paragraph get a new doc in the binder. I try to write one story (a scene or cohesive point of a plot) at a time. Each story gets a folder. Once I am done I then go back and regroup my story to find the boundaries of ideas or scenes in that story. This is a second level of folders in the binder. Once I have a pretty good start, or *gasp* feel like I am done, I then try to figure out how to present the stories as the "work". Finding things that go together or make a good contrast with each other makes chapters. Sometimes I don't move things around at all and take it "as is" because the story feels right.

I think the above proves why I am not an author.

Another Mr. Coffee-ism
Jaysen

I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle, and the realization that she was out of my league so I might as well be happy with her as a friend. 26 years marriage later, I can't imagine life without her. -Me 10/7/09

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Thu Oct 08, 2009 6:39 pm Post

themakcompany wrote:ICan anyone explain how to structure a novel or even begin one? I've looked at a lot of books and they talk about plot points etc. but they don't really show a structure.


Novels are a more general type of work than a screenplay. They're probably better comparable to plays. There are screenplays, stage plays, teleplays, and podcast scripts, for example. Each type has a different purpose, audience, perception method, etc.

Ergo, the best structure depends on your story. In a general sense, you need a beginning, middle, and ending. You also need to start the story somewhere after the true beginning unless you're astoundingly skilled or utterly insane. (Or maybe I'm just talking about myself, there, because my stories tend to be insanely complex anyway, never mind when I start explaining the backstory.)

Different writers have different methods for structure. I, for example, usually don't worry about it except on a technical level. For example, "It would be really neat if I could get that girl's birthday party to be in chapter 17" and "I have to do about 2k words in the present part of the story and 1k in the backstory per chapter" (I'm alternating first person, present tense and third person, past.) I start my stories with a situation in mind, get a grasp on the character(s) involved, and figure out where I want it to end up. Then I have to figure out the plot and structure. I'm still trying to figure out the best way to do that for me.

Chapters are arbitrary pauses, in the sense that the writer puts them where they "feel" right. Some don't use them. Chapters can be to carry tension through the story, breaking in the middle of each tense scene--serial novelists like Charles Dickens usually do this--or to switch narrators, or to indicate the passing of time, or to let the reader get a breath of fresh air at a natural pauses in the story. (Be careful with that last one. You have to own your reader's interest to pull it off without letting them drop it and never pick it back up, though I think it's the most common chapter break method.)

Your questions make it sound like you don't read many novels. That's your first error, if I'm right. How can you write something without knowing what you're trying to accomplish?

If you could share at least your genre and general idea*, perhaps we could suggest some comparable books with variable structures and such for you to examine? Reading comparable works can help you find out both what you do and don't want to do in your own writing.

I, for example, do not believe in love at first sight. So I don't have characters getting instantly attracted to their soul mates on account of their astounding beauty or some sort of "mate for life" magic. And I think lust at first sight idiotic. Therefore, my natural response to a romance novel tends to be "Oh, grow up, already!"

And as much as I liked reading Graceling, I found the uniform cultural taboo odd. (I won't spoil it if you haven't read the novel, but it's the decision she makes that gets what's-his-face scolded by his family.) So though I do have set beliefs about right and wrong, I endeavor to let my fantasy worlds demonstrate that different people believe different things.

And Jaysen, stop belittling yourself! :evil: I'm not an author yet, either. Er, technically. (Since short stories that you don't get paid for don't count, and that e-zine is now defunct, anyway.)

-'Dee

*Novels ideas aren't salable. The execution of that idea (the finished novel) is. Two writers can take the same idea and end up with two completely different stories. Don't believe me? Check out the many various "Cinderella" and "Beauty and the Beast" retellings that are out there.
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Jaysen
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Thu Oct 08, 2009 6:59 pm Post

Yes ma'am.

I will take exception to
I , for example, do not believe in love at first sight. So I don't have characters getting instantly attracted to their soul mates on account of their astounding beauty or some sort of "mate for life" magic. And I think lust at first sight idiotic. Therefore, my natural response to a romance novel tends to be "Oh, grow up, already!"

if I am allowed. I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle, and the realization that she was out of my league so I might as well be happy with her as a friend. 16 years and 6 days of marriage later and I can't imagine life without her.
Jaysen

I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle, and the realization that she was out of my league so I might as well be happy with her as a friend. 26 years marriage later, I can't imagine life without her. -Me 10/7/09

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Thu Oct 08, 2009 7:08 pm Post

Jaysen wrote:Yes ma'am.

I will take exception to
I , for example, do not believe in love at first sight. So I don't have characters getting instantly attracted to their soul mates on account of their astounding beauty or some sort of "mate for life" magic. And I think lust at first sight idiotic. Therefore, my natural response to a romance novel tends to be "Oh, grow up, already!"

if I am allowed. I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle, and the realization that she was out of my league so I might as well be happy with her as a friend. 16 years and 6 days of marriage later and I can't imagine life without her.


Oh, you're certainly welcome to have your own belief on the love/lust at first sight thing. I just used my own personal gut reaction as an example. :wink: I certainly didn't intend it to be "I can't believe anybody enjoys this!", and I apologize if it came across that way.

I mean, my own mother has the "I can't believe anyone enjoys this nonsense!" reaction to fantasy, and, erm... That's what I write. :cry:

I am glad to hear that you've been happily married for so long. :D
Last edited by Carradee on Mon Oct 12, 2009 11:21 am, edited 1 time in total.
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vic-k
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Thu Oct 08, 2009 7:30 pm Post

Jaysen wrote: I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle,
I think you can safely return Mr Coffee`s, 'horse`n`stick' to him. :wink:
"I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle...." has to be a candidate for: the best signature aboard Scrivener :D Nice one young `n` :wink:
A wiggle...a giggle...and a snort! Tell colleen, vic said,Grrrr!! :twisted:
As a professional, you, are your one and only asset. Without integrity you are worthless, but with it, you are priceless.

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Jaysen
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Thu Oct 08, 2009 8:02 pm Post

Snort says "Thank you Vic-k".

I may need to consider that as a sig…
Jaysen

I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle, and the realization that she was out of my league so I might as well be happy with her as a friend. 26 years marriage later, I can't imagine life without her. -Me 10/7/09

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Fri Oct 09, 2009 1:43 pm Post

In response to the original poster:

Read a lot (in your chosen fictional genre, to see how others do it), and write a lot. That really is the only advice you'll need.

Well OK, there are many how-to books, of which probably the best are by folks such as Stephen King, Robert McKee, Donald Maas, Dwight V. Swain and Christopher Vogler (a rewriting of Joseph Campbell, see above). But you can spend far too much time absorbing them*, when truly you should be spending it... writing.

Oh, and living an interesting life. That helps too.

H

*And your plots will all turn out like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings...
'Listen, some quiet night, when you've shirked your work that day. Do you hear
that distant, almost inaudible clicking sound? That's one of your
competitors, working away in the night in
Paris or London or Erie, PA.'

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Jaysen
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Fri Oct 09, 2009 1:55 pm Post

Hugh wrote:Oh, and living an interesting life. That helps too.

Thank you for crushing my soul. At least know I know what to expect.

:\
Jaysen

I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle, and the realization that she was out of my league so I might as well be happy with her as a friend. 26 years marriage later, I can't imagine life without her. -Me 10/7/09

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Fri Oct 09, 2009 2:04 pm Post

Jaysen wrote:
Hugh wrote:Oh, and living an interesting life. That helps too.

Thank you for crushing my soul. At least know I know what to expect.

:\


Hey, living an interesting life just helps. Ain't necessary. :D
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Jaysen
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Fri Oct 09, 2009 2:09 pm Post

Some of us need as much help as we can get!
Jaysen

I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle, and the realization that she was out of my league so I might as well be happy with her as a friend. 26 years marriage later, I can't imagine life without her. -Me 10/7/09

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Mollys Mum
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Mon Oct 12, 2009 12:51 am Post

I will take exception to

I , for example, do not believe in love at first sight. So I don't have characters getting instantly attracted to their soul mates on account of their astounding beauty or some sort of "mate for life" magic. And I think lust at first sight idiotic. Therefore, my natural response to a romance novel tends to be "Oh, grow up, already!"


if I am allowed. I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle, and the realization that she was out of my league so I might as well be happy with her as a friend. 16 years and 6 days of marriage later and I can't imagine life without her.



The perfect sig line, Jaysen. Much as I love your dead horse and the stick, I love this more.

Dee, begging your pardon, but it was lust at first sight (mind you we were both idiots) for my sainted husband and me, and we are 31 years and 1 day (and a Happy October anniversary to you, Jaysen :D ) and counting.

As for the OP, I second everything Hugh says, and have happily and gratefully followed his advice on this and much more, specifically, his recommendation of the Snowflake Method http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php, which--successfully, it turned out--got me over hurdles that had plagued my previous 4 unpublished novels. Ah, but the interesting life.....with children, the Hound from Hell, and 3 horses, chaos and crisis trump "interesting" every time--unless you are referring to that "old Chinese curse."

I think it was Henry James who referred to novels as "loose, baggy monsters." Why anyone would deliberately choose the genre is beyond me.

But then I am your quintessential idiot. :wink:

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Jaysen
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Mon Oct 12, 2009 1:40 pm Post

By popular* demand I give you the new sig.

* Ok only 3 people, but that is 3 more people than normally support anything I say.
Jaysen

I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle, and the realization that she was out of my league so I might as well be happy with her as a friend. 26 years marriage later, I can't imagine life without her. -Me 10/7/09

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