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Author Topic: The blog of Raphael - my principles of fiction novel writing  (Read 1214 times)

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Offline RaphaelTopic starter

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The blog of Raphael - my principles of fiction novel writing
« on: November 20, 2010, 05:50:20 AM »
I am publishing here a quick overview of my personal approach to novel writing. Note: even though it's written as if it addresses the reader of my blog, it is actually written that way to address myself. It's not a tutorial or an advice for other people unless they decide to take it this way themselves. :-)
Feel free to comment, criticize, or discuss :-)

Writing a good novel is to me like cooking a good meal in that it requires the exact same five things:

What do you need to cook a good meal:
1. Desire to do it.
2. The recipe.
3. The right ingredients.
4. All the appliances and tools.
5. The spice and flavoring.

Transferred over to writing a good fiction novel, this list looks almost identical:
1. Desire to do it.
2. The gameplan.
3. The ingredients.
4. The tools of the fiction prose writer.
5. The spice and flavoring.

Now, I will explain.

1. Desire to do it.

This one should be pretty self-explanatory. You will be forced to write a novel at gunpoint in extremely rare cases. Mostly, you need to WANNA do it if you wanna do it.

2. The Gameplan.

A gameplan is my own term for the recipe for a novel. Through your novel you give your reader one, two, or all three of the following things: entertain them; educate them; persuade them.

- entertain them - give your readers intense emotions that keep them intrigued and living within your story and loving it. The horrible scary moment, the stolen kiss, the heated argument, the breathtaking car chase... All these create emotional intensity.

- educate them - give your readers information that they might be interested in hearing. The amount and nature of this information is up to you, up to your genre, up to the readers you're aiming to reach. Police thrillers have tons of information about police procedures. Lawsuit thrillers take you deep into the system, romance novels can give valuable insight on fashion, etc etc.

- persuade them - you are writing your novel with thoughts in the background - criticism towards something in modern society that's bugging you? A philosophic approach to what human nature is? Or you simply want to say that love is a beautiful thing? Whatever it is, you have a message that you want to allow your readers to get to through your novel.

But how do you do put them all together in a nice readable way? You can't just write a novel in which the intensity of the emotions you invoke in your reader rises and falls at random, with bits and pieces of interesting information thrown here and there, with the messages you want to pass on to your audience being pursued inconsistently, right? Right. What you need is to create an elegant and smooth story in which the emotional intensity slowly builds up to rise to a peak, then calm down to give your reader a breather before rising to another peak, the bits of educating information fall in the correct places, and the message you want to persuade your reader to slowly builds momentum until the reader sees it and says: Aha! I get it!. This is how most great fiction novels are constructed. This is what I call a gameplan.

To entertain the reader, you want to create a flow of intense emotions in them. Thrills, aww's, anger, eagerness, turn-ons... the list goes on. Whatever these emotions are - your reader needs to LIVE in order to LOVE your story. The best way to do this is create a story which has several emotional peaks where the emotions you fire up into your reader go high, followed by a more calming, smooth set of episodes that pick up the pace to advance the story. These emotional peaks are intriguing twists, horrible disasters that fall upon your characters, discovering something vital... etc. And since you cannot drag such a peak over 5 chapters, the way it usually goes is smooth, forward-pacing story followed by one or two emotionally intense scenes that give your story a power boost {I call these power boosts story drivers}, followed by more smooth advancement in your story {I call it the story flow}, followed by another such single-scene power boost... until the end. In a novel of an average length, it is usually assumed that the ultimate number of such peaks is 4. The first three would be disasters, turning points or story twists that separate your story in four roughly equal parts, and the last one would be the point very near to the end of the novel in which the outcome of the story is decided {I call it the showdown.} In an average novel, if there's fewer emotional peaks, the less emotional parts of the story will be dragging on forever and will become boring; if there's too many, the reader will be overloaded, the story will be exhausting and difficult to follow through, becoming a burden rather than a breath-taker. Even though it might seem like too strict and schematic-a-rule, if you observe most popular fiction novels, you will notice that 90% of them follow it. It's just the way it is, I suppose. Another important thing - make sure each story driver is more intense than the previous one, and the showdown is the most intense one. Each following peak should be higher than the previous one. Otherwise the story will set a high mark at the beginning and then never reach it again, leaving the reader with a feeling of disappointment.

To me personally, I find the most appropriate places for bits of educative information to feed to the reader the less intense story flow between the story drivers. Giving your reader a detailed overview of how to correctly shoot a sniper rifle or what the political life in Cambodia is like would enrich the story flow in my opinion, but it would disrupt the emotional intensity of the short, single-scene story drivers. Who wants to read three pages of explanation on fingerprint processing in the middle of the breath-taking scene where the heroine is fighting for her life against the masked assassin? I know I don't.

Of course, attempting to pass on your message or your point of view to the reader begins at 0 at the start of your novel, and advances gradually and smoothly throughout the story - more and more visible in the character's dialogues, emotions, thoughts, moral dilemmas, etc. Start low, advance slowly, reach your peak in the end. So when the reader closes the book, they have this bubble in their mind, saying: You know... this author guy might be right. Important here is something so many young and unpolished authors fall for: preaching. You want to SHOW your reader what you mean, not tell them. The reader doesn't want a sermon, they want to reach to your message on their own, between the lines, subtly. Having your main character give a long speech about how genetic research is wrong won't do. The reader will just say - this man sounds like my senator. Thanks mate, but no thanks.

Here is a simple graphics showing in a nutshell my personal preferred gameplan.

This is the graphics of my gameplan for the novel I'm writing on NaNoWriMo, for example. It starts by gently introducing most of the main characters into the story and giving them each an agenda; then comes the first major threat to them which acts as a story driver; the story continues to flow with the characters advancing through the plot and pursuing their individual as well as their collective agenda; then the second story driver in which the 'good guys' are attacked and they realize how imminent the danger really is; followed by story flow in which the characters now press on; then comes the final and most emotional story driver in which the character are forced into a 'do or die' situation... another short story flow leads them to the showdown where they do or die. The story flows where things quiet down I use to implement educational parts for my reader - mostly political events, what everyday life was like, etc in Europe in the 16th century. Throughout the story drivers and the story flows the message I want to pass on to my reader starts low, slowly becomes more evident, picks up force to become more and more persuasive towards the showdown and the end.

3. The ingredients.

So, you have the desire to cook your novel. And you have the recipe to do it. But we all know that even the best recipe in the world can't do you any good if you don't have all the ingredients it requires. So... we need the ingredients for our novel. These are: story, story world, characters, message. You need to have all of those - whether you write them down neatly, or you just have them in your head, but you need to have them.

Story world
This is where everything happens. Your story world must be detailed enough so that you know what the hell you're writing about; it must be logically consistent and historically relevant - politics, economics, philosophy, religion, society, culture - whether it's our real world or a fantasy or sci-fi one you designed from scratch, it doesn't matter - everything happens for a reason, has logic behind it, and is based on the chain of cause and effect; and it must be dynamic - no world is stationary and without progress, even dead planets change.

This is what happens. It must be relevant to the story world and a part of it. It must be based on a disruption of the status quo - some sort of change, usually for the worse - or in other words, conflict. Mostly your story drivers will be based on conflict, as well - that's what drives the story forward. Roses and barbecue don't motivate your character to go fight the bad guy.

This is to whom it happens. Your characters must be consistent - each real person is the way he/she is because of life experience, personality, aspirations and motivations, physique - these things all interact in a certain way and intertwine to create a whole person. They need to be a mix of 'typical' and 'unique' characteristics and traits - typical for their age, gender, job, lifestyle, etc, and unique to make them different and interesting. The typical treats should outnumber the unique, but the unique should be more relevant for the character development and for the story. Every character must be linked to the story - aka to have an agenda.

That's what you're trying to say. You want to say something, don't you? You have an opinion on a subject, criticism for some aspect of life, whatever. That's your message or messages. They should be implemented into the story in such a way that they reveal themselves to the reader subtly, between the lines throughout the events, dialogues, thoughts and emotions, moral dilemmas of the characters, etc - without you as the author bringing them up.

4. The tools of the trade.

Alright. So you have the recipe, and you have the ingredients. But you need to prepare your ingredients and cook them together to get your novel, right? You need to peel, chop, mince, roast, fry, etc. So for that you will need all the peeling, chopping, mincing, baking tools and appliances. You can't cook without a knife, a ladle, a pot, a stove, etc.
And you can't cook the ingredients of story world, story, characters, and message into a novel without the seven tools of the writer. These are: action, dialogue, internal monologue, internal emotion, description, flashback, narrative summary.

- action - you need to find the balance between being brief and detailed in order to make it dynamic, fluid, vivid and explosive but not too long, boring, or superfluous, or too short, drab, or unclear.

- dialogue - make the character speak for themselves, don't speak through them, don't tell for them.

- internal monologue - mostly used to reveal and to develop character.

- internal emotion - mostly used to reveal character. "Show, don't tell!" Let the reader see the emotions of your characters rather than telling your reader what the characters are feeling. "He bashed at the wall and groaned." is better than "He was upset."

- description - be brief, give the reader the essence so that they can follow what's happening but don't bore them. Give their imagination a guideline relevant to the story world and plot, don't give them a catalog or a manual.

- flashback - use to give the reader the pre-story of the plot, some insight into the character's background, etc. Use sparingly.

- narrative summary - use sparingly, mostly to drive the plot forward through periods that are irrelevant to character development and to the action - use to 'speed through' more boring moments.

5. Style.
You have the recipe. You have the ingredients. You have the tools needed to cook the ingredients together according to the recipe to create a delicious novel. But it still lacks something - you need to spice it up. That comes with your writing style.
Your style is everything listed from the beginning of this article to this point, plus the mixture of humor, drama, suspense etc you are using, plus your choice of words, sentence length, text structure. Styles vary - no one can say which style works best. Lee Child has a very strict, tight writing style with short straight sentences, no use of exclamation marks, whereas Terry Pratchett has long sentences mixed up with witty author's remarks, generous usage of bold and italic text. The styles of these two authors have nothing in common, and yet they both have hundreds of thousands of readers and their novels enjoy success. So - find and develop a style that is: a) your personal; b) fun for you to write in; c) pleasant for your readers; d) relevant to the nature of your novels and the goals of your books.

Well, these are in short (yes - in short) my personal principles of novel writing. I would like to stress out again two things: first, no matter how it sounds, these principles are aimed at ME despite addressing a "you" throughout the article. It was just easier for me to write this way so please if you've read it, don't feel personally addressed. And second, as strict as these principles seem, they are principles - NOT rules. They are guidelines, rules of thumb if you wish, but they are not a step-by-step manual on how to write a novel. Nearly all of them can be broken in one way or another - if you know how to break them right :-)
Once again - feel free to comment, discuss, criticize, and offer your personal view on the subject.

- Raphael
« Last Edit: December 04, 2010, 10:15:09 AM by Raphael »

Offline DGblitz

Re: The blog of Raphael - my principles of fiction novel writing
« Reply #1 on: February 06, 2011, 12:18:43 AM »
Hmm, for some reason, I never really thought about rising and falling action in a story, despite how common it is. Guess sometimes you just need someone else to point it out to you. Thanks!

Offline Sandman02

Re: The blog of Raphael - my principles of fiction novel writing
« Reply #2 on: February 13, 2011, 07:32:23 PM »
Hmm, for some reason, I never really thought about rising and falling action in a story, despite how common it is. Guess sometimes you just need someone else to point it out to you. Thanks!

Agreed. If I take away just one thing from this entry it is the graph that you composed, which depicts the flow of a story in cycles. Again, this makes intuitive sense to me even though it's not something I had thought of in those terms. It may even make the writing process a bit easier for me. Thank you