What are the basics of novel structure?

The structure of a novel isn’t simply industry convention, it taps into psychological behind how we understand a story.

A novel starts at 40,000 words or more in length. For some people that seems daunting while for others the struggle is to keep their word count manageable. Writing a novel is like having children, it seems a great idea before you start, but then comes the hard work. One thing you can do to reduce that work is to write to the expected novel structure. (I’m talking technical construction here, not genre plot expectations). Nearly every successful novel has most of these elements of structure the majority having all. It takes a skilled writer to abandon convention without creating a total mess.

Every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the simplest structural breakdown, commonly known as the 3 Act Structure (see also Monomyth and Hero’s Journey). Rare stories start at the end and work their way backwards. But, that’s just shuffling the order in which the acts are encountered and takes both a skilled author and a forgiving reader. Short stories and novellas can be written to a different structure, with serial novellas often missing the third act and ending on a cliff-hanger.

The beginning (Setup) is where you make your readers care about your story, the world you built, and the characters they find in it. The first act takes up 25% (or less) of your words. Be wary of excessive exposition and telling, not showing.

  • Hook the reader so they keep reading;
  • Ask the questions that generate interest in your setting;
  • Introduce the significant characters;
  • Inciting Incident;
  • Begin the main plot.

The end (Resolution) is the mirror opposite of the setup. This act is the culmination of all the elements of your story. The final act again takes up 25% (or less) of your words.

  • Answer any outstanding questions about your world;
  • Make sure significant characters have completed their arcs;
  • Conclude the main plot;
  • Make sure the reader finishes your book satisfied.

The middle of the story should be self-explanatory. It is called the Rising Action as it is a sequence of action/reaction scenes that ratchet up the tension in your story so that the reader is invested by the time you move into the final act. The middle of your work is where sub-plots are born and die. Expand on the details of your world and flesh out your characters. Where the beginning has to have hooks to attract the reader, and the end has to satisfy their needs, the middle is where your readers fall in love with your work. It is the meat of your story where your characters gain the knowledge/skills they need to resolve their situation.

  • (optional) starts with a call to action;
  • Give depth to your characters;
  • Flesh out the main plot;
  • The turning point in your story;
  • Add sub-plot (that may or may not get resolved);
  • Add conflict/obstacles of increasing difficulty;
  • Increase the tension to prepare for the final act.

Here is a basic (Google Doc) structure spreadsheet you can use for reference. You should be able to see how the 3 Acts fit together.

Disclaimer: If you are a pantser you may think structure is a straitjacket that restricts creativity. There are lots of processes (snowflake method etc.) that almost ignore structure. There is nothing wrong with these approaches, but it often means that a work will need to go through multiple drafts for clarity. I recall a quote from a popular author (it may have been Stephen King) that they paid absolutely no heed to structure, but on examining their work it’s obvious they adhere to the structure (acts, turning points, beats) with textbook precision. They didn’t care about structure because it was something they did without realising. Most of us aren’t that lucky.

Common sense in character names

Red Rose

Does a “Phlegm” by any other name still smell as sweet?

It’s a Trap! Things to avoid when naming your characters.

You’ve finished your novel, your characters are fully fleshed persona’s in their own right, and each has a unique voice and presence. That is awesome!

Less awesome is the fact that they’re called John, Jane, and James. A similarity in names guaranteed to disrupt the flow of the story as your reader goes back to double check who said what. Was James the one with the limp and the gift for magic, or was that John? Has Jane had a sex change since chapter 3 that the author decided wasn’t important enough to mention?

Alliteration can be a powerful tool in the writer’s arsenal, but when it comes to character names you want the clarity that comes from distinctive names. An easy check can be done by putting all your character names on a single document; nothing but the name. See if the names are visually similar, and if so, change them a bit.

  • Try to avoid multiple names that start with the same letter;
  • Read the names ALOUD to check if any of them sound similar;
  • Avoid pronunciation that requires a double-jointed jaw or the tongue of an ant-eater.

What’s in a name?

Building an alternate reality Venice, you probably want Venetian, Florentine, and Italian names. If your scene is set on a gondola and all your characters carry Slavic names like Vladimir or Tatiana, anyone with knowledge of the culture is going to experience dissonance that may ruin their reading experience.

If you are writing a modern piece or one set in the future, you have a lot more freedom.  You might want to look at your world plan. If China is the dominant power then a large portion of your characters should have Chinese influenced names. Is your piece set in modern-day Korea? Then most of your characters should have one of the big family names (see http://koreanslate.com/top-10-korean-family-names-in-south-korea.html & http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_South_Korean_surnames_by_prevalence).

Is your amazing character name 14 syllables long or comprised of multiple titles? Use it sparingly and make sure you have a short-hand version for usage if the character is going to appear regularly. Writing from a first-person perspective allows you to reduce the character to “I” pretty regularly, so that point of view is far more forgiving of protagonists with complex names.

When hunting for good character names have a look at baby names by country of origin and meaning, or old historic documents from the era you’re interested in. In short DYR (Do Your Research) and avoid sinking a great story with poorly considered names.

An additional link for names http://www.writing-world.com/links/names.shtml

Self-Editing tips to improve your work

Self-Edit

The Basics of Self-Editing

All of this, everything that follows, is just a guideline. Never let technical correctness muffle your writers’ voice. Don’t assume every editors’ suggestion needs to be embraced. And remember that none of this is a substitute for a skilled Masochist Concept Editor and a cohort of Victims Beta Readers.

I’ve edited a few things over the years; actually, I’ve edited a lot of things even though my name isn’t on most of them. In that time, I’ve found there are some common mistakes that continue to crop up each time I forget myself and get dragged back into working on someone else’s Magnum Opus. I thought I’d put these together in a not so brief piece to help other budding authors avoid some of the common pitfalls. Keep in mind that none of this addresses issues of structure, plot consistency, themes, or voice.

FIRST

Do NOT edit while you are still writing. Once you get to the end of your section take a break and don’t immediately go back over it. You, the writer, know what you’re trying to say, but the reader doesn’t. Or as a great writer once scrawled in a shaking hand, “Write drunk. Edit sober.” Until you put some distance (time & emotion) between yourself and the work, you will only see it through your filter as a writer. (See also why I need an editor)

Avoid Repetition

Watch out for repetitive word use in the same sentence or paragraph. This can be particularly tricky when you are being technical in your writing. The more uncommon the word is, the more your repetition of its use will stand out to a reader. The more common a word, the more its repetition will bore your reader (such as repetitive for example). Try to keep a careful balance between clarity of meaning and precision of word use.

Show don’t tell

Keep in mind that every story needs a balance of showing and telling. Relying too heavily on either method can ruin a reader’s experience.
“Show, don’t tell” is the advice that every writer gets, the advice that promotes description in place of narration. It’s also the advice that can destroy a writer’s voice and ruin a cleverly constructed sequence. So show where you can, narrate where you must, and preserve the flow of your story.

  • Don’t tell people what characters think, show it.
  • Don’t explain an emotional response like you’re diagnosing a disease. Show the physiological reactions.
  • Don’t tell the reader what to think and feel, make them think it or feel it.

Don’t write a novel like it’s an essay

Opening a sentence with “At this point…” “Meanwhile…” can add some interesting tone to your voice as a writer, but make sure it doesn’t turn your paragraph into a laundry list of actions instead of a scene. Which leads on to ‘danger words’.

Danger Words

ThinkAlso known as plague words, because you need to avoid them like the plague. There are lots of words in the English language that are good solid words, cornerstones of communication without which we couldn’t express ourselves. At the same time when they appear to regularly in your work they may be highlighting a problem;

  • Really / Very (and other intensifiers): These are crutch words that have no descriptive value. Eliminate entirely or replace with a descriptive word. As Mark Twain famously said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
  • He / She: If every sentence starts with ‘He’ and ‘She’, you not only bore the reader but are often telling rather than showing.
  • I: (see 3rd person dialogue below)
  • Was / Is / Are / Am: These sometimes highlight the presence of the passive voice. If you don’t understand the difference between active and passive voice you need to leave this page right now and do your homework before you get back into the writing. (pro-tip) use the Zombies check, but keep in mind that the passive voice isn’t always the problem people seem to think.
  • Feel / Believe / Think: Outside dialogue, such words are unnecessary, we already know you feel/believe/think this otherwise you wouldn’t be writing about it.
  • Just: The word doesn’t add any real value to sentences. Leaving it out often results in the same meaning and makes the sentences much tighter and more direct.
  • Got / Went: Lazy and imprecise. There is nearly always a better action word you can substitute, one that gives more nuanced meaning to your work.
  • Then: Then is my personal bugbear, then turns an action sequence into a shopping list of dot point actions.

Then points vaguely to the existing timeline and says, “It was after that last thing I talked about.” But the new action taking place in a subsequent sentence or sentence part implies that much already. You can almost always eliminate your thens without disrupting meaning or flow.

“Then” should be used as a clarifying agent, to communicate that two seemingly concurrent actions are happening in sequence. For example, “I drove to the supermarket. Then I realized I didn’t need to buy anything.” Without the “then,” it would be easy to mistake this as pre-existing knowledge or as a realization that happened during the drive itself.
– Robbie Blair

For a more definitive list (for those who have been poisoned by the language of academia) have a look at http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/plague.htm or even learn how to write good.

Generally, avoid meaningless words and fillers, unnecessary adverbs, and where it doesn’t ruin the flow of your story you can sometimes place adverbs within the verb.

Simple Examples
Then the solution can be discarded. vs The solution can then be discarded.
The blood is withdrawn slowly. vs The blood is slowly withdrawn.

Avoid 3rd person dialogue

If you are writing from the third person perspective and your characters start talking about themselves in the third person, it just sounds like they’re mentally imbalanced (unless that is your intent). When dialogue reads like the characters are talking about themselves in the third person such as “I have two paths… “I have chosen… “I need to… “I never… “I think… “I think… “I think… then those characters better have a god complex (or an inferiority complex) because normal people don’t feel the need to identify themselves before making every statement. If the people in the room can see you talking, you don’t need to let them know you’re there first. – I’m mentioning this point because it always surprises me how often this happens.

Clearly define your characters

Your characters should all be different and not just little clones of you as an author. Each character should have a purpose and bring something to the work. If they don’t then they’re not characters, they’re plot devices or scenery. If you find you have a problem doing this you may wish to consider writing from a first-person perspective.
Look at the number of characters you have. If there are too many, see where some overlap and you might be able to merge them into a single individual. This can tidy up your work, giving your remaining characters greater depth. It also helps the reader who no longer needs to track a cast of thousands.

Check your names

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, differentiate your names. If your reader can’t easily identify individual characters you may as well not have them. Not just how the names look on the page, but also how they sound when spoken aloud.
You may have put a great deal of thought into your characters. Perhaps you spent hours deliberating over the personality of your protagonist’s and which name best fits them. Maybe you even agonized over the subtle hints that each name provides, the baggage it comes with, and the impression you hope to impart, but to your reader, it’s usually just a name. Sure there can be a certain pleasure for both the reader and the writer in understanding the underlying message of a name, but your clever usage will rarely overcome a reader’s existing bias.

For example, any book I pick up where the character shares the name of an archangel, and if this book hints at the existence of an angelic ancestry… well let’s just say they don’t often inspire glowing reviews. On the other hand, a kick-ass warrior woman called Daisy can at least inspire a smile.

Check your Dialogue

SpeechPatternsSpoken word regularly breaks grammatical rules. Slang, dialects, and contractions all do to the spoken word what Agincourt did to the life expectancy of French nobility. So don’t trust your automated grammar checker (you are using one aren’t you?) for any dialogue sections. Get someone (or some program) to read it aloud. There is no better way to spot jumbled or nonsensical sections.
Go through each character and make sure that their dialogue stays consistent. Make sure each character has their own voice, and that their voice isn’t just yours. You want consistency within each character and distinction between them. A grease monkey who never finished high school shouldn’t sound like an academic giving a lecture and vice versa.

Mix it up (structure-wise)

Vary your sentence length. Variety helps keep the reader engaged. Short, sharp, sentences are ideal for rapid action scenes. Long, run-on sentences strung together by commas and asides are great for those moments of calm and introspective thought. Use different sentence structures. If every sentence begins with the same words or has the same structure (such as the technically correct object => verb => adverb) the pace of the piece will be the same and it will feel very repetitive. Mixing up your sentence types keeps the writing fresh and varied, making it easier to read. Same for paragraphs, they can be of almost any length, from a single sentence to five or more. Paragraphs are meant to give readers breaks and giving them breaks at the exact same time over and over again gets extremely monotonous. A simple beat is boring, just as listening to a dripping tap can drive someone to madness, so mix up the tempo in your writing.

Precision in language usage

A thesaurus is no substitute for understanding the word you are using. Decimate may technically mean ‘to kill 1 in 10’ but that is rarely the common usage. I’ve got friends who have grown up with the connectivity of the internet. For them things like grammar and correct spelling are far less important, they argue that as long as the message is clear, who needs all those rules. There may be some point to that, one day we might be writing in emoji’s and L33T and the rules of grammar may have been forgotten. But there is a cost, with a reduction in vocabulary comes a reduction in the nuances that can be conveyed. We think in words, and anything that restricts our word choice also stifles our imaginative potential, it’s a rare person who can conceive of a notion that has not yet been named, and a rarer one still that can then share that notion with others.
What I am trying to say, in my rambling and imprecise way, is be precise in your use of language. If you have to tell rather than show, don’t use ‘angry’ when you can use words that are more appropriate and convey a lot more information. ‘Very Angry’ could be furious (suggesting a near loss of control), fuming (suggesting an internal rage), enraged (suggesting an imminent physical response), annoyed (suggesting a passing state), exasperated (suggesting the anger derives from some sort of recurrent obstacle), and so on. A consistent style of word use can also go a great way to setting the tone of your story and reinforcing the themes and imagery.

Mind your metaphors

Metaphors aren’t bad but think carefully before you use them. Some people have trouble understanding metaphors. Some metaphors don’t translate well across different cultures. For those who speak English as a second language, metaphors are rather advanced usage and they may struggle with them long after their fluency has met or exceeded that of a native speaker.

Check for Typos

A typo in tweet won’t raise too many eyebrows. An error on your blog isn’t the end of the world. Your manuscript is a different story. A typo in your work doesn’t just look unprofessional, it can break the flow of your story and jolt your reader out of the story.  Trust your Beta readers, use checking software, and do what you can to minimize those mistakes.Too many errors may alienate a large section of your potential audience. We all make typos, and even professionally proofed works will occasionally have an error slip through (industry standard assumes one typo per 10,000 words).

LAST, but never LEAST

Do NOT expect your work to be perfect. It never will be, which means you’ll never be finished. There comes a point when you have to accept that it is ‘good enough’ and you can release it into the world.

PS. Spell check is no substitute for a copy-editor.

PPS. I’m not going to tell you to minimize the passive voice. I have my reasons. Not the least of which, is that everyone else has probably told you already. I’ll also leave structure (order, flow and balance), themes and complimentary word choice, consistency of spelling, capitalization, and hyphenation for another post. YAY! Won’t that be fun?

saved

Why get an Editor?

We all need an editor. Period.

When looking back over my own work my brain fills in the gaps and the page reads exactly the way it’s supposed to. That helps prove that my brain is still working, even when my grasp of English isn’t. You know that silly meme ‘if you can read this…’

…same thing.

Not all editors are created equal, so you need to find someone who not only knows their craft but gels well with your voice as a writer. You also need to work out at which points you need the Concept Editor (primarily creative and craft stuff such as overall structure, consistency, plotholes, pacing) and when you need the Line Editor (primarily technical and craft stuff like grammar, typos, and correct word usage).

You need a good editor because…

  1. Typos
  2. Grammar
  3. Spellcheck lies.
  4. ‘Teh’ is not a word
  5. Fact checking
  6. That word, I do not think it means what you think it does.
  7. Pacing, rhythm isn’t just a dancer.
  8. Plotholes, the reader can’t know what you don’t tell them and rarely likes it when you break your own rules.
  9. Editors have little-bitty baby editors to feed.
  10. You need more red ink and strange hieroglyphics on your manuscript.