On Sunday, I posted about keeping the fire from Nanowrimo in order to finish your novel. That’s why you’re here, right? You want to finish your novel? Good! Because here’s Part 2: Move It Along.
You either outlined your novel before starting it or you didn’t. Some people outline very loosely, with just a basic idea of their story. Others are very detailed, planning every scene. Some outline after they start a story (like me!) and some never outline. This blog post does deal with planning, but I tried to write it for people from all walks of writing. (But trust me, this stuff will come in handy if you ever decide to revise your novel.)
They is Gustav Freytag’s dramatic structure, and it consists of five parts:
1. Exposition or Introduction: This sets the tone of your story and introduces your characters and their struggles to the reader. An inciting incident usually sets off the. . .
2. Rising action: This is most of your story. A series of conflicts work against your characters to bring them to the. . .
3. Climax: Where the rubber meets the road. Your character is faced with a big decision which determines the outcome of the story. But of course. . .
4. Falling action: Things usually either go wrong here from your character’s big decision OR they are still dealing with the immediate setting (for example, the bridge is still going to collapse), but everything finally comes to an end in the. . .
5. Dénouement, resolution, or catastrophe: Things end well or end badly. Either way, this should leave your reader with a sense of finality in your characters and their story.
Now, of course, this is a very basic way of looking at a story. There are many other, more complicated ways to look at plot and the sequence it follows. In general, though, this sums it up pretty well. (There are also way simpler ways to look at plot, too!) Who knows why stories follow this formula? Whatever the reason, plays and books and movies have moved their readers through this turn of events for a very, very long time, and it works. Some stories may have very clear turns through these stages while others may be more subtle.
The first question you need to ask is where is your Nanowrimo novel at in this dramatic structure? Even people who do not plan one single scene should be able to tell whether they have reached the rising action yet. They can generally tell when the climax is upon them, though of course, it may be harder because you’re just writing by the seat of your pants and anything could happen. 😉
Take the time to really assess your story and see where your characters are at. Has the inciting incident even hit their unsuspecting lives yet? Have they just started out on the rising climax? Are they on the cusp of the huge climax? Or are they already close to the resolution? When you know where they are, it’s much easier to go forward.
Okay, have you decided where you think the novel is? Yes?
Then the rest of this blog post will probably only help those who haven’t reached the climax of the story. If you are already past that or if you are in the process of writing the climax, then wait until the third and final part, coming on Thursday. In the meantime, KEEP WRITING! You are so close!
For everyone else, let’s look at how to make that beginning and middle — both build-ups to the end — the best they can possibly be.
This contains the “Exposition/Introduction” part of dramatic structure. It introduces characters and setting. It also carries an implicit promise to your reader. Within the first few pages, you promise the reader what kind of story she or he will be reading. Just within the first chapter, the reader, whether you realize it or not, is forming expectations for the rest of the novel. This carries a lot of weight—are you setting up the scene for a high-stakes, fast-paced thriller? Or are you introducing your reader to a literary novel that revolves around introspection?
(During Nanowrimo, you may have completely lost sight of that initial promise you made to your reader, and that’s okay! What you want to focus on right now is finishing, right? Then keep writing. Keep in mind what you meant for that promise to be and fulfill the promise. Later, you can go back and change the times when you broke it. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with revising now, but there’s no point to it if you never finish the book ;))
As you move along in your beginning, you will be introducing and developing your characters into people your reader will want to read more about. The conflict will usually be subtle, but present.
The beginning doesn’t need to be very long — it will set your novel, promise the reader something, introduce your characters, and usually an inciting incident changes everything.
An inciting incident is what sets off the conflict of the whole story. In The Hunger Games, it’s when Prim’s name is called during the Reaping. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it’s when he receives his acceptance letter to Hogwarts. (Keep in mind if you go searching all these terms, you will find things from both novelists and screenwriters, and the two groups can sometimes look at plot sequence quite differently.)
Once your inciting incident happens, you can move onto the middle.
“The middle of a story develops the story’s implicit promise by dramatizing the incidents what increase conflict, reveal character, and put in place all the various forces that will collide at the story’s climax.” ~Nancy Kress, Beginnings, Middles, and Ends
Instead of going into the typical Act 2/Act 3 structure, which you can look up and read all about from people who know more about it than me, let’s talk about conflict.
Conflict should be driving your novel and your rising action. Your character will run into a series of conflicts (which some call plot points) that should take him further from what he wants. The stakes should be clear. What will your character lose if she doesn’t get what she wants?
Things should get more and more complicated as the stories go on and the conflict mounts and the plot points build on one another. As the story is moving along, your characters should also be developing, too. Some will be stubbornly set in their ways, but often, protagonists will be morphing and changing in their personalities, their convictions, their motivations. Character change is a powerful part of story, even in plot-driven books.
Everyone knows middles are hard. They are rarely the most exciting part to write or even to read. Keep in mind the tips I had in part one about having a support group of writers, having a way to track your progress, and having a goal or deadline. These will help you motivated through the middle. And keep in mind that if things are boring to you, then chances are, they will be boring to the reader, too. Don’t be afraid to spice things up—but don’t lose track of your overarching story, either.
The point of all this? Move your story along. Wherever it is, write scenes that move the plot forward. It might take you a while to get to the next plot point or the next stage in the story, but you can do it. This is the point of a story—to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, even if it’s part of a longer series.
For more on Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, read the so-named book by Nancy Kress. It’s a good one. I will also be releasing an ebook soon about how to revise your novel, and it will have a lot about plot.
For the actual climax and ending, stay tuned for Thursday’s post Part 3: Find the End. We’ll talk about how to implement all the elements of a satisfying ending into your novel.