Archives for posts with tag: how to write a novel

I remember fondly learning about the Freytag Pyramid in elementary school English. The pyramid was a great introduction to my understanding of plot and climax, but as I got older, and the stories that I read became more complex, I discovered that this neat little pyramid just didn’t cut it. But through college, my lessons on plot never seemed to present anything different. Even recently, I attended a presentation in which the pyramid was brought up by industry professionals when discussing plot. That’s when I began to seek out some other analogy that would help me to better understand plot structure. 

I love a good roller coaster as much as I love a good book, and just this weekend it hit as to why that might be. Both roller coasters and (many) books are structured to give those who dare to enter a thrilling ride. I’m generalizing here, and I’m well aware that not all books and roller coasters are created equal. But for many books, I think that a roller coaster may be a more relevant analogy for plot than is the old pyramid. 

For those of you who might be scratching your heads when I mention the Freytag Pyramid, here’s an illustration of what I mean. In a nutshell, pyramid plot structure dictates that the story should begin in a state of normalcy, become complicated and conflicted, rise to a climax, and then return to a changed or renewed state of normalcy. I love this pyramid explanation of plot, and I think it’s a great way to get novice readers and writers to understand structure.

But I think a roller coaster is a more appropriate analogy for novels, especially the high concept ones. Here’s why: A roller coaster usually has more than one peak, or pyramid, if you will. I can’t think of any novel that I’ve recently read that didn’t have multiple climaxes. Yes, many stories contain a single major climax, or pyramid peak, that encompasses all of the others, but there are other climaxes.

In this way, each drop of a roller coaster is its own pyramid. Notice how many roller coasters begin with a huge drop. In stories, this first major drop is the first major incident in the novel. It’s the event that turns the main character’s world upside down. It’s the event that sets the tone and the course of action in motion for the rest of the story. In many ways, this first event is like that first gut-wrenching drop of a roller coaster ride. As a friend pointed out, this biggest drop should actually come at the end of the story. As you can see, just as roller coasters are limited by the laws of physic, this analogy has its limitations.

Secondly, roller coasters, like stories, contain loops–events that literally reverse the events of the story. These loops are the moments at which the reader realizes that a certain character isn’t who she said she was, or those moments at which the main character is set back on his or her journey. We could say the same of twists, too. Story twists, like roller coaster twists, throw unexpected motion into the plot.

Thirdly, many roller coasters have a big drop or surprise toward the end. In stories, this final surprise is the main character’s final obstacle. Oftentimes, this obstacle is surprising and unexpected. For instance, it’s when the villain who we thought was killed comes back to life, grabs his gun, and aims it one last time at the hero. Good stories, like good roller coasters, save this thrill for the end, executing it at the moment at which the audience least expects it.

And finally, a good roller coaster will gently drop you off at the exit, unharmed, but changed and exhilarated. Isn’t that just how a good story should leave you off? 

This roller coaster analogy is particularly helpful to me when I think of my role as a writer. I’m an engineer, a job title that is a lot easier for me to understand than “pyramid builder.” I guess writers are pyramid builders to some degree, setting our stories into place one brick at a time, but when I think of myself as a roller coaster “engineer” I can visualize my role better. I can see the design. I can feel the weight of responsibility in building my tracks properly. I can almost hear the screams and can picture the thrilled looks on my riders’ faces. As a story engineer, I understand better what it means to gain my readers’ trust while leading them through a perilous journey that makes harrowing amusement park lines well worth the wait.

That’s right, I’m still revising the novel. It’s been almost two months since I thought I was officially finished. One of my favorite principles of writing has proven to be true yet again: Writing is rewriting.

Editing this novel has taught me that I tend to think it’s finished when I get tired of rereading it. This is just not true. The novel is done when it’s done, no matter how tired I get. I’ve heard some writer’s say, “If you’re bored with your novel, your readers will be too.” True, if you’re bored by the content of your own novel, then the plot most likely needs revision. On the other hand, I think that boredom during the revision process is natural, especially if you are truly revising the manuscript the way it needs to be revised. I mean, when’s the last time you’ve read any novel ten times back to back and maintained the same level of interest in it that you had the first time through?

Bottom line: When you become bored revising the novel, unless it is an inherently boring story, you are not finished. Most likely, you’re about halfway through the revision process. What do you do at this point?

Here are some tactics I’ve learned for pushing through the second half of the revision process:

1) When you think you are done, put your project aside. Revise it again from start to finish after a hiatus. I have found that 1-2 weeks is good. Some writers might need more time, some less. As one of my favorite writing instructors taught me, time + distance = perspective. (Thank you Peter Fox)

2) Repeat step one until you feel finished again. For me, this meant three more full edits.

3) When other people ask you what’s going on in your life, say “I’ve just finished my novel, and I’m looking for readers.”

4) If/when these people volunteer to be beta readers, take them up on the offer. Send them your manuscript and a synopsis along with an invitation for honest feedback. Lavish them with thanks.

5) Consider the feedback from your beta readers, and revise again. Remember, you do not have to take all of the suggestions you get, but be open and willing to understand where each and every comment is coming from. Be gracious and thankful to your readers, no matter how off you think their comments might be. All comments, belying your reader’s motivations or level of intellect, communicate something to you. Also, your beta readers will give you feedback about the biggies–plot, characters, setting. It is up to you to edit the sentences. If, however, one of your beta readers is well-versed in the English language and offers to proofread your sentences, welcome the help with open arms. Keep in mind, the manuscript is YOURS. You are responsible for making sure such corrections are accurate.

6) After you address the bigger issues that the beta readers point out, let the manuscript sit again. Let’s say, a week. Then, revise for those nit-picky errors, such as homophones, grammar, and punctuation.

7) Repeat step 6 until the manuscript says, “I’m ready to be taken to market.”