NaNoWriMo is in full swing. Many people are discovering that writing is much more work than they realize. Some have fallen by the way already, and others will falter along for a few more days. Then they too will disappear, and their work will lie forgotten until the urge to write resurfaces, like the sneaky shark that creativity is.
However, a few people new to the craft are developing a passion for the dirty habit of writing every day. They are joining the ranks of the old pros, the people who “do NaNo” every year whether they expect to be published or not.
But all writers begin as readers. As we read, we see an arc to the overall novel consisting of:
- Exposition, where we introduce our characters and their situation.
- Rising action, where we introduce complications for the protagonist
- Climax, the high point of the action, the turning point of the narrative
- Falling action, the regrouping, and unfolding of events that will lead to the conclusion
- The resolution, in which the protagonist’s problems are resolved, providing the reader with closure.
Scenes are mini stories that support the overall arc. They come together to create the all-encompassing drama that is the novel. The way the narrative unfolds keeps our readers interested until the end of the book. Each scene has a job and must lead to the next. If we do it right, the novel will succeed.
The main difference in the arc of the scene vs. the overall arc of the novel is this: the end of the scene is the platform from which your next scene launches. This means each scene begins at a slightly higher point on the novel’s plot arc than the previous scene, driving the narrative.
In my mind, novels are like Gothic Cathedrals–arcs of stone supporting other arches until you have a structure that can withstand the centuries. Each scene is a tiny arc that supports and strengthens the construct that is our plot.
These small arcs of action, reaction, and calm push the plot and ensure it doesn’t stall. This tension increases the overall conflict that drives the story.
My writing style in the first stages may be different than yours. I lay down the skeleton of the tale, fleshing out what I can as I go. But there are large gaps in this iteration of the narrative.
So, once the first draft is finished, I flesh out the story with visuals and action. These are things I can’t focus on in the first draft, but I do insert notes to myself, such as:
- Fend off attack here. Bandits wound Lenn. I don’t know how.
Or my notes might say something like:
- Contrast tranquil scenery with turbulent emotions here.
For me, the first draft is always rough, more like a series of events and conversations than a novel. In the second draft, I stitch it all together and fill in the plot holes.
In the first draft, most scenes I write are conversations interspersed with actions. Conversations between our characters should have an arc that supports the cathedral of the novel. They begin, rise to a peak, and ebb.
They inform us of something we must know to understand the forthcoming action. Conversations propel the story forward to the next scene.
A good conversation is about a thing or idea and builds toward some other thing or idea. Dialogue must have a premise and move toward a conclusion of some sort. Otherwise, it’s is a waste of words.
A scene that is all action is confusing if it has no context, no frame. A properly placed conversation can give the reader perspective when there is no silent witness (an omniscient presence). This view is needed to understand the reason for events.
A certain amount of context can arrive through internal monologue. But we don’t want the reader to face a wall of italics. I have two problems with long mental conversations:
- Italics are daunting in large chunks.
- Internal dialogue is frequently a thinly veiled cover for an info dump.
Plot points are driven by the characters who have critical knowledge. The fact that some characters are working with limited information creates tension.
This inequality of knowledge is called asymmetric information. We see this all the time in the corporate world.
- One party in a business transaction has more or superior information compared to another.
- This individual’s drive and pursuit of pure self-interest can prevent others from entering and competing in an industry or market.
- This person has the critical knowledge the competitors don’t have.
- That inequality of information effectively eliminates his competition.
In other words, he has a monopoly and rises to the top.
In literary terms, a monopoly of information creates a crisis. In the novel, a conversation scene should be driven by the fact that one person has knowledge the others need. An idle conversation will bore your reader to tears, so only discuss things that advance the plot.
The reader must get answers at the same time as the other characters, gradually over the length of a novel.
I struggle with this too. Dispersing small but necessary bits of info at just the right moment is tricky. Hopefully, by the end of my second draft, all these bumps will have been smoothed out.
Now that we are a week into NaNoWriMo, I have written 20,000 words into my outline, which is gradually becoming a novel. Already many things have changed from the original plan.
Whether it will be an engaging story for a reader (or not) is something I can’t predict, but I’m enjoying writing it.
And that is what writing should be about—writing the story you want to read.