Tag Archives: what is the story arc

When your novel is only a novella #amwriting

Sometimes we find that our work-in-progress is not a novel after all. We get to the finish point, and that place might be only at the 40,000-word mark (or less).

WritingCraft_short-storyIn some circles, 40,000 words is a novel, but in fantasy, it is less than half a book.

You could try to stretch the length, but why? If you have nothing of value to add to the tale, it’s better to be known for having written a strong novella than a weak novel.

I’m a wordy writer but sometimes the finished work is shorter than I’d planned–a lot shorter. Then I have to make a decision. I could choose to leave it at the length it is now and have it edited. Or I could try to expand it.

If my beta readers feel the plot lacks substance at that length, I let it rest for a while then come back to it. Then I can see where to add new scenes, events, and conversations to round out the story arc.

Other times, the story is complete, but only about half the length of a novel. Sometimes this happens in the revision process.

In the second draft of any manuscript, I weed out many words and hunt for unnecessary repetitions of information. At that stage, the manuscript will expand and contract. It hurts the novelist in my soul, but the story may only be 35,000 words long when the second draft is complete.

I do a lot of rambling when trying to visualize the story. While I usually do it in a separate document, it often bleeds over into my manuscript. During the editing process, I sometimes find that besides the four chapters that don’t fit the plot anymore, three more chapters mainly deal with background info, and can be condensed into one.

CAUTION INFO DUMP ZONE AHEADA detailed history of everyone’s background isn’t required. As a reader, all we need is a brief mention of historical information in conversation and delivered only when the protagonist needs to know it.

Unfortunately, I sometimes forget to write it out in a separate document.

Once I condense rambling passages, I end up with a scene that moves the story forward.

Some other things to watch for in the second draft are areas where I have repeated myself but with slightly different phrasing. These are hard for me to pick out, but they can be found. I decide which wording I like the best and go with that.

Also, in the first draft, I use a lot of “telling” words and phrases I will later change or cut. I look for active alternatives for words and phrases that weaken the narrative:

  • There was
  • To be

When I change these words to more active phrasing, I sometimes gain a few words in the process as showing requires more words than telling.

But then I lose words in other areas. Again, I’m speaking as a reader here, but when reading conversations especially, it’s good for an author to use contractions. It makes the conversations feel more natural and less formal. It shortens the word count because two words become one: was not becomes wasn’t, has not becomes hasn’t, etc.

Most times, I can cut some words, even entire paragraphs. Often the prose is stronger without them, and these words need no replacement.

In the first draft, I regularly employ what I think of as crutch words. I can lower my word count when I get rid of them. These are overused words that fall out of my head along with the good stuff as I’m sailing along:

  • So (my personal tic)
  • Very (Be wary if you do a global search – don’t press “replace all” as most short words are components of larger words, and ‘very’ is no exception.)
  • That
  • Just
  • Literally

I have learned to be ruthless. Yes, I might have spent three days or even weeks writing a chapter that now must be cut. But even though I try to plot an outline in advance, the arc might change as I write the first draft. New events emerge, and I find better ways to get to the end than what was first planned.

It hurts when a really good chapter no longer fits the story. But maybe it bogs things down when you see it in the overall context. It must go, but that chapter will be saved. With a name change and perhaps a few place-name changes it could be the genesis of a short story.

I save everything I cut in a separate file, as I guarantee I will find a use for it later. I always have a file folder inside each master file labeled “Outtakes.” Those cut pieces often become the core of a new story, a better use for those characters and events.

I have learned to pay close attention to the story arc. Once your first draft is complete, no matter how short or long, measure the story against the blueprint of the story arc.

blueprint-of-the-story-arc

  • How soon does my inciting incident occur? It should be near the front, as this will get the story going and keep the reader involved.
  • How soon does the first pinch point occur? This roadblock will set the tone for the rest of the story.
  • What is happening at the midpoint? Are the events of the middle section moving the protagonist toward their goal? Did the point of no return occur near or just after the midpoint?
  • Where does the third pinch point occur? This event is often a catastrophe, a hint that the protagonist might fail.
  • Is the ending finite, solid, and does it resolve the major problems? Even if this story is one part of a series, we who are passionate about the story we’re reading need firm endings.

Some people think they aren’t a real author if they don’t write a 900-page doorstop.

I tell them that it’s not important to have written a novel. Whether you write poems, short stories, novellas, or 700-page epic fantasies, you are an author.

The Emperor's Soul - Brandon SandersonNovellas hold a special place in my heart. A powerful, well-written novella can be a reading experience that shakes the literary world:

  1. The Emperor’s Soul, by Brandon Sanderson
  2. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
  3. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, by Truman Capote
  4. Candide, by Voltaire
  5. Three Blind Mice, by Agatha Christie
  6. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson
  7. The Time Machine, by H.G, Wells
  8. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
  9. The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
  10. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
  11. The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James

15 Comments

Filed under writing

#amwriting: the third quarter of the novel and the character arc

Lately, I’ve had many discussions on the hero’s journey and how we structure a story that follows that most traditional of story arcs.

Usually, the first half of the book is easy for me to write, but beginning at the midpoint of my first, very rough draft, I begin to struggle.

The rough draft is challenging because we are pulling the story out of the ether. Once the first draft is finished, we can get down to actually writing the book.

The first draft is where we take an idea, a “what if” moment and give it form on paper. When it is finished, the rough draft is basically made of sections of brilliance interspersed with a catalogue of events: who did what, where they did it, and why.  We are beginning to know our characters, but in the original version, we may not have a handle on how to portray their reactions so they are organic and true. The character arc is uneven and making the story seem real becomes a challenge.

The term character arc is used to describe the personal growth and transformation of a character/protagonist over the course of a story. Stories that interest me have a strong character arc:  the protagonist begins as one sort of person, and through the events he/she experiences, they are transformed, frequently changing for the better, but sometimes they change for the worse.

The third quarter section of your story begins with the midpoint crisis. From there we are barreling toward the final showdown that begins the final scenes, and from there we are racing toward the conclusion. The third quarter of the story is crucial because the seeds planted by the events of the first half must bear fruit here, forcing a visible change (usually a positive change) in the behavior and outlook of the protagonist and his/her friends. Sadly, some books fail to live up to their promise when they arrive at this point, and the reader gives up.

In a book where the storyline follows the hero’s journey, at some point in this third section, the protagonists may lose their faith or have a crisis of conscience. This is your opportunity to learn who they really are as human beings. The events leading to this place have combined to break the character down to their lowest emotional state. They must emerge from this section remade as a stronger person, ready to meet whatever awaits them at the final showdown.

And you must make it believable, done in such a way that it feels natural to the reader.

If you are stuck with a character you can’t figure out, ask yourself what personal revelations come out about the protagonist, or conversely what does he discover about himself?

As I said, for me this part of the rough draft is often difficult to write because often in the first attempt to just write the story down, the protagonist and his motives are still somewhat unformed. But if you are following the hero’s journey, by the end of this section, your main character has been put through a personal death of sorts. Their world has been shaken to the foundations, and they no longer have faith in themselves or the people they once looked up to.

  • How is he/she emotionally destroyed by the events?
  • How was her/his own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?
  • How does this cause the protagonist to question everything she ever believed in?
  • What makes him pull himself together and just keep on going?
  • How is she different after this personal death and rebirth event?

This low point is a crucial part of the hero’s journey, the place during which he is taken down to his component parts emotionally, and rebuilds himself to be more than he ever believed he could be.

By the time you finish writing this part, you should have come to know your character and how they will react in any given situation.

Paying close attention to making this section emotionally powerful in your first draft will pay off when you begin the second draft. In the rewrite, the story always evolves into a greater, more polished version of the original.

Taking the rough draft and rewriting it is absolutely the most important thing you can do.  It is when you are deep into the second draft that you realize some plot twists don’t work as you devised them, and they must be reworked. Also, you begin to find and smooth out grammatical errors and awkward prose.

I write my work in four drafts. The first, rough draft rarely is seen by other eyes than mine. It is me thinking out loud through my keyboard and is not ready to be seen by anyone else but me, so if I ask you to look at a section and tell me if I have gone off the rails or not, feel honored! Few are ever offered that privilege.

The second draft is what goes to my beta readers.

The third draft is what emerges after the first readers’ comments have been taken into consideration.

The fourth draft is what goes to my editor.

While your story will have serious issues in the rough draft stage, at least by time you are finished with it you will know your characters. They and their motives will be clear, offering up the ideas you will need to shape the second draft of your manuscript, making it into the believable story of a real person’s journey through life-changing events.


Attributions:

Image: the Hero’s Journey, by scan from an unknown publication by an anonymous poster, in a thread, gave permission to use it. Re-drawn by User:Slashme [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

6 Comments

Filed under writing