Beginning your novel

Write a strong first line that makes the reader want to know more.

“From the first line, a story should create a sense of character, conflict, setting, mood, theme or style, or any combination thereof. Most importantly it should make the reader ask questions.” – Diane Callahan, Editor,

A good example of these factors in one piece is Silvia Plath’s The Bell Jar:
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

Or the opening from Donna Tarrt’s The Secret History:
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

Do not think you must include all the elements above, or that your opening lines need to be quite so gloomy.

Take PG Wodehouse’s start to The Luck of the Bodkins:
“Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.”

Callahan has broken down the essentials into the following overall elements you need in your opener.
Does your opening shot contain or form a question in the mind of the reader?
Is there some hint at the character of either the narrator or main character, or indeed the character of the author?
Is there imagery which will be enticing for the reader and is fitting to the story?
Does the beginning of the story hint or explicitly state what the overall sway of the novel will be?


Plotting your novel pt 3

Twists and turns in your novel

To engage and retain the interest of your reader your novel should have tension. Nobody would stick around to read a story where there is no challenge or obstacle for the protagonist to overcome. Together with the greater quest or overarching story you want to tell, your popular fiction story should contain the following.

Twists and turns: by putting unexpected challenges in the way of the protagonist or events getting in the way of the protagonist’s aims you make the reader become more involved with the story. These twists also provide the reader with an added interest in putting something unexpected in the way of their own expectations of how the story will unfold. This is most evident in the “twist in the tale” ending or the denouement of a detective story where the reader is caught out by the murderer being unmasked as being the least likely character.

An example of these twists is “The Three Apples” from The Arabian Nights. It begins with a fisherman discovering a locked chest. The chest is broken open and the dead body is found inside. The initial search for the murderer fails, but then a twist occurs when two men appear, separately claiming to be the murderer. And so on. The more ingenious the twist, while still remaining believable and being able to be resolved in an acceptable way, is a skill readers greatly appreciate.

Types of twists

Discovery where the protagonist’s sudden recognition of their own or another character’s true identity or nature. In “The Three Apples”, the protagonist discovers a key item towards the end of the story that reveals the true culprit behind the murder to be someone least suspected.

Flashback is a sudden, vivid reversion to a past event. This throws light on the current situation of the protagonist for either good or ill.

The Unreliable Narrator twists the ending by revealing that the narrator has manipulated or fabricated the whole story, forcing the reader to question their prior assumptions about the story they have been reading. Sometimes the writer plays with the reader’s assumptions on social class or mental facilities such as the examples in the multi-narrated novel The Moonstone by Wilkie Colins.

Reversal is a sudden change in the protagonist’s fortune, whether for good or ill, that emerges naturally from the character’s circumstances.

Deus ex machina is a Latin term meaning “god out of a machine.” It refers to an unexpected character, device or event introduced suddenly in a work of fiction to resolve a situation. This device should be used sparingly to ensure your fiction emains believable. At the Pixar film studio they have a rule that conincidence can get a character into trouble but that the character’s own atributes and not conincidence must get them out of trouble and resolve the story line.

Poetic justice is a literary device in which virtue is rewarded or vice punished in a way that the reward or punishment has a logical connection to the deed and it is interesting how readers still want a happy ending for the main character.

Chekhov’s gun refers to a situation in which a character or plot element is introduced early in the narrative, then not referenced again until much later where its second appearance should be vital to the resolution of the story. Otherwise it can only be a red herring which is a false clue intended to lead toward an dead end for the protagonist.

Plotting your novel pt 2

Your plot can be either event-driven or character-driven, though these two plot engines may run in tandem with now one, now the other, taking the strain of pushing the story forward.

Tom Monteleone in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel neatly sums up the basis of all plots as being either:

Man against society

Man against Man

Man against himself

Man against nature

The writer’s job is to mix all these elements above to make a truly great story but, one element is vital; the truly great story will have plenty of complications. This very often means that when the situation is looking bad for the protagonist the writer’s job is to make that situation worse. Think of Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps when not only has he a dead body in his flat, but he then decides to let the police make of it what they will and try to solve the mystery behind the murder himself. This decision, of course, leads the police think he is the murderer. This leaves Hannay to clear his name and save the country from the enemy all in the space of 124 pages.

It is these complications which make the story interesting but which also lead to the resolution in which the protagonist has changed in their outlook or material situation.

Think also of pacing your novel, making sure there are plenty of high-octane moments interspersed with quieter scenes where the writer can clear up some loose ends and set up some further complication down the line. That said, every scene should be deepening characterisation, mood, explaining background or building the reader’s understanding of the protagonist’s situation.

When writing your novel think of an end point you want reach and point your reader in the direction but once you have the reader thinking they know how the direction of the story you add in your complication and change that direction. These change points help you pace your novel and keep the reader guessing whether the obvious ending will be achieved. Change points can be of the following type:

Reverses – when everything seems to be going well the writer throws a spanner in the works.

Discoveries – where the characters find out something unexpected.

Recognition – when the protagonist realises they should have guessed the thing the reader suspected all along.

Remember, that though the writer’s job is to “make ’em wait!” all the actions in the novel should be logical to the story line so far. This is a mixture of making the outcome of the story believable and the protagonist’s actions, rooted in their behaviour traits, also believable.

One good source of advice available via a web search is the Lester Dent Plot Formula. These words of wisdom from one of the masters of pulp fiction gives a line-by-line break down of how to write a 6,000 word story, but is useful and adaptable to stories of any length.

Plotting your novel pt 1

Plot is the arrangement of incident in your novel. The writer can arrange the events in their novel in one of the following ways.

Straightforward chronological order

Start at the end and explain how everything turned out this way

Start somewhere in the middle (In Medias Res to talk technical)

With the last two forms the writer will have to employ the use of flashbacks to fill in the gaps.

In very basic terms plot is made up with the following elements.

Exposition – begin with the background information the reader need to make sense of the situation the characters find themselves in; how much you show at this stage is up to you but the current ideal for popular fiction is to start with very little exposition.

Rising Action – introduce complications which intensify the situation.

Foreshadowing – suggest what is yet to come, this can be used to build tension.

Suspense – these moments will delay the plot to keep the reader wondering what happens next. Remember the wise words by Charles Reade “Make ’em laugh; Make ’em cry; Make ’em wait!”

Climax – scene where the ultimate struggle occurs.

Resolution – some final scenes which tie up any loose ends and let the reader know how it all turned out.

A well-plotted novel, a real page turner, keeps the reader guessing and uses rising action, suspense and foreshadowing in a series of events to keep the reader on the edge of their seat and concerned about what is going to happen to the protagonist.

Chekov’s gun

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

Chekov is urging the writer to be honest with the reader and is warning against extraneous detail.
A gun is a strong image, full of meaning. It has the potential for danger and death or the saving of a life. To draw it to the attention of the reader means that if nothing comes of it, readers can feel duped. Every detail must have purpose. If you give something significance you should follow through on it.

Crime fiction for today

“Present-day gumshoes are often more interesting than the crimes they solve.” Christopher Fowler

Current crime fiction has a greater degree of psychological realism, taking in both the detective and the criminal and trying to suggest why they do what they do. Writers such as James Lee Burke takes a very even-handed view of crime, showing that both sides of the law are subject to their own justifications.

The social setting of the private eye or police officer has also become more important and often readers can join in the relationship the author portrays in the gentler pages of the stories. Donna Leon’s police investigator Achile Brunetti even has his own cookbook for sale. ” A Taste of Venice- at table with Brunetti”. It features some of the food enjoyed by Inspector Brunetti and his family, with recipes and excerpts from the novels.

In spite of the changes in how the private eye/police detective is portrayed the hero of the story still has tend to conform to the maxim laid down by Raymond Chandler:

“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished or afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything… He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world”

Although it must be pointed out that today’s hero of crime fiction is just as likely to be female. See writers such as Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky.

Villains, though, still tend to be bad to the bone. The books by James Lee Burke often feature a villain with whom the reader can empathise but there is usually a further villain who takes on the role of the unstoppable sociopath who always gets their just deserts by the final page.

For the detective, the side-kick still exists; current day Watsons include: for Burke’s Dave Robicheaux it is Cleet Purcell, for Robert Parker’s PI Spencer it is Hawk. Both these guardian angels are the harder, darker side of the hero, taking measures that go against Chandler’s ideal of the prefect detective hero.

Types of crime fiction

Why write crime? It is popular, the best-seller lists are packed with crime fiction. You can explore deeper issues such as exploitation, nature of evil, political corruption etc

The difference between crime fiction and adventure fiction Andre Jute in his book “Writing a Thriller” suggests that crime fiction thrillers always have an element of betrayal, whereas adventure thrillers nearly always feature a threat from an outside force.

Different types of crime fiction The field is wide and whatever your interest there is probably a crime book catering to that world.

Inside this there are different types of thriller

The whodunnit, usually typified in books by Agatha Christie

The whydunnit – Nicholas Freeling, Simenon

The police procedural – Ed McBain

The caper – Janet Evanovich, Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard

Private eyes – Raymond Chandler

Spies – John Le Carre

The political thriller – Richard Condon

The psychological thriller – Ruth Rendell

The chiller – Val McDermind

Writing flash fiction

A lot of what is called “sudden” or “flash fiction” relies on the Ernest Hemmingway idea of the “tip of the iceberg”; the author should only report what is happening without adding the reasons or background to the events depicted. A flash fiction supposedly written by Hemmingway is: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Today with the ever-growing influence of the web-based social networking sites such as “Twitter” the way we are communication with each other is changing.

Shortened messages issued “on the fly” are becoming the norm and although some may abhor this development the move seems unstoppable and may even offer opportunities to those who are able to keep their writing short.

Perhaps the shortest story ever written (and perhaps the longest palindrome which makes sense) is:

A man, a plan, a canal, Panama.

First published by Leigh Mercer in the 1948 the sentence is witty and has a progression which tells the story of the Panama canal in the barest of bones.

Creating characters readers care about

You need to create a protagonist the reader cares about to ensure the reader is pulled through your book, always wondering what is going to happen to the main character. Once you have the reader on the hook you have to work to ensure the reader remains engaged with that character and the story the character travels through.

To paraphrase the Lester Dent Plot Formula, the writer has to heap problem after problem onto the main character to interest the reader in what the outcome will be, but also to prove the main character is worthy of their happy (?) ending.

Looking at Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice we come to know a character who is steadfast, worthy of a happy ending but who, importantly, has to endure setbacks, social humiliation and the dashing of her hopes before winning the ending we always hoped she would achieve.

Is it a bestseller or a blockbuster?

There is a difference between a bestseller and a blockbuster.

Bestseller                                              Blockbuster

Bridget Jones Diary                              The Thorn Birds

Small Island                                          Gone with the Wind

Any mainstream thriller                         Da Vinci Code

All these books are best-sellers but the ones listed under blockbuster have that common extra factor which boosts them from being a great book to being a blockbuster which you might find on the shelves of those people who do not consider themselves to be book lovers.

Albert Zuckerman in his book “Writing the Blockbuster Novel” identifies as a problem that many authors write commercial books that are “too small”. By too small he means, domestic or limited in the scope of its characters or setting.