My love of writing has grown from my love of reading, and like many writers, I write the kind of books I would love to read. In my early years of writing, I enjoyed several novels by Bernard Cornwell, and took some valuable writing advice from his website.
To paraphrase, he said that when you want to understand how something is made, you take it apart, and so it is with novels. Pick a novel you love, one that you wish you had written because it resonates deeply with you long after you’ve finished reading it. And then unpack it.
I’m not talking about the way we did back in English literature classes at school or university, but in the way a writer needs to. The story, the structure, the way characters get themselves into situations and why, and how long it takes them to get through the path of obstacles you have created for them.
This is the eleventh in this series of blog-posts about writing a novel, and what I’ve written in the previous ten all have relevance, but this is where the fruits of those come together in a loose mesh which can be tugged, stretched and made to fit by doing some research and a bit of juggling. The best way to analyse your own novel is by comparing it to novels that you wish you had written. What is their secret? How did those authors manage to hit all the right buttons in exactly the right places? Unpack it and see.
I have always loved the movies, and long before I started buying books on writing, I bought books on how movie structure worked. Many of my favourite books on writing are still the ones about screenplay structure, and much of what I now think of as my checklists and story patterns for writing my novels come from reading those books.
I always have: a three-act structure (Screenwriting for the 21st Century by Pat Silver-Lasky); a hero’s journey (The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler); a sequence of sequences (Screenwriting: the Sequence Approach by Paul Joseph Gulino); and a beat sheet (Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder). From these I have, over the years, devised my own basic structure, and now that I’m struggling with the ratios and proportions of my latest novel, it’s Blake Snyder’s beat sheet that I’m using to analyse (and hopefully fix) the problems I’ve encountered.
Following Bernard Cornwell’s advice to new writers, spend some of your precious writing time unpacking three or four novels you’ve loved and wish that you’d written. Try to use works from different authors, all of whom have written in the genre you love to read and are writing in.
Re-read each novel carefully, notebook in hand. Read like a critical writer, not like a loving reader. How long does it take to reach the catalyst or inciting incident? How long does the hero debate before making the decision to take action? At what point do the Bad Guys start to turn even nastier? Is there a significant Midpoint which either foreshadows the outcome or gives the reader the exact mirror-image of what the ending will be? Which scenes are written in full, and which are summarized to move the action along at a faster pace? How long is the third act, or finale?
Knowing the novel because you’ve already read it at least once, pinpoint exactly when and where each tiny slice of foreshadowing takes place. A master craftsman plants various ideas and hints throughout the entire novel, in such a way that the reader sees the fruition of those seeds as being the perfect denouement and not as a nasty, unrelated, out-of-left-field surprise. Master storytellers also weave an undercurrent of tension throughout, which we glimpse at appropriate moments – a ticking clock, a war or revolution taking place in the background, and so on. Make notes on how they do it.
Another thing to make notes about is how subtle the love scenes are. My current favourite love scene is in one of the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters: The Falcon at the Portal. It is 60% of the way through the text, and is exactly three sentences long. Because Peters has built the tension so well between the two characters up to that point, she needs only three sentences.
The first is the start of the girl’s run across the room towards him, the second is their moment of meeting halfway, and the third is later when they are curled up together in bed and he wipes away one of her tears of happiness.
Who needs more than that? No one needs more if the path to get there has been planted properly. Satisfaction all round.
Now let’s get to the horrid part of this exercise: the cringe moments when you compare these notes to your own work-in-progress. Take comfort here from the fact that your work is still actually “in progress” and it’s not finished until you’ve finished working on it. Take more comfort from knowing that those famous novels had a team of editors and beta-readers all making suggestions to the author and helping to hone the final product long before you read it.
How far into the novel is your inciting incident? How long does your hero take to make the decision to go on the journey? How wordy and purply is your love scene?
Does your Midpoint actually happen exactly at the 50% mark or does the first half of the novel seem to take forever? (Take heart, people – this is always MY big problem area!) Which scenes need pruning, and which can be reduced to summaries instead of slowing the pace?
Are your moments of foreshadowing clunky brick-on-the-foot moments that give the game away? Go back to your outline and see if you can drop hints in a more subtle, sparing way. You want readers to be pleasantly surprised by the ending, not able to foretell it before they get there. You want them to say afterwards that it all worked out perfectly in the end. Remember that, if the first page sells the novel, the last page sells the next novel…
With the notes you have made of how other authors make their novels work, and with the help of your outline, timeline and character sketches – all of which you made before you started yours – you will be able to find the right places to tweak and twist your work so that it all happens where it should, and in a much more satisfying way.