The Reunion

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

When You Write a Story: Points to Ponder

Write every day

I’m currently completing work on a novel, a romance set during the war in heaven that pitted Lucifer and his army against Michael the archangel and his soldiers. I wrote the first chapter over ten years ago.

A number of times, when I set goals for the New Year, I would include “finish book” in my list, but I never seemed to find the time to even identify the main characters, much less to develop the plot. Whenever I glanced at my list, there was always something else that seemed more important, or easier, or less time consuming. It was not until last spring that I finally began to write the story.

You will always find something other than writing that begs to be done. I generally tumble out of bed to write at seven each morning. I could always choose to sleep for an extra hour, eat breakfast, read a book or walk on the beach, but unless I purposely write on a regular basis, I will not write much at all.

To say “write every day” may be a bit strong, of course, but if you want to write, you must work at it regularly. It cannot be something that is done “on the side” or solely in your spare time.

 There must be conflict.

In his book, The 90 Day Novel, Allan Watt writes that conflict is central to drama…we are naturally drawn to charged moments both large and small. We are not drawn to what our hero had for breakfast, unless he is on death row and it is his last meal.

Without conflict, a story becomes a simple account of events, strung together, one after the other, without direction or purpose. The conflict that drives a story can be external, resulting when our characters are prevented from reaching their goals by someone or something outside of themselves, or the conflict can be internal, reflecting the interplay of the hero’s multiple wants, desires, and motives, man struggling against himself.

In Once and Future Wife, we find both types. An external conflict arises between Jennie and her future stepdaughter, Tasha, who is trying to prevent Jennie from marrying her father. The primary conflict, though, is internal, as Jennie fights the demons of her bipolar disorder that threaten to cooperate with Tasha and derail her impending marriage.

Without conflict, a story lacks a driving force. It lacks interest. Where is the suspense? Where is the fear that the hero will have her plans thwarted, her hopes dashed? Where is the relief when a satisfactory ending occurs? 

 Know where you are going.

J.K. Rowling once said she knew the conclusion to the Harry Potter series as she began to write the first book. This seemed like a remarkable claim when I first heard it, but it is likely true. It is quite important that before you begin to write, know how your story will end.

Writing is like a journey. If you don’t know where you’re going, you have no idea which highway to follow, which turns to take, or how far you must travel.

Each scene in a book, each decision the hero makes is designed to move him from the inciting incident toward the conclusion. If the conclusion is unknown, then the hero wanders. The scenes are disjointed, perhaps giving hints of what is to come, perhaps leading the reader down blind alleys. The plot becomes confusing and the reader loses her way.

Some writers develop detailed outlines before they begin to write. I’ve read, for example, that James Patterson does this, for example, but not everyone finds such outlines useful. Knowing your conclusion does not mean you must have a complete outline. What you must have is a destination, not a GPS locator.

 Don’t be afraid to wander.

Always be open to new twists or even new characters. Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, once wrote of returning to the story on which she had been working the day before, only to find two new characters who had not been there before. The story was much richer with the new characters than it would have been without them.

I have found that some of my best plots appear as I am in the middle of writing a scene. A line of dialogue, perhaps, will suggest a new direction in the story. I may describe a character’s facial expression and wonder why what she might be thinking. I might describe the weather or the flowers in a garden and those elements may become important elements in the story.

In Those Children Are Ours, the main character spots a hawk soaring above a cemetery. When I first mentioned the hawk, my character was sitting in an old cemetery on a rural road, surrounded by the pine forest that covers much of northwest Georgia. I was simply setting the scene, but the hawk became an important element, appearing each time she visited the cemetery and tying the story together. You’ll find the same hawk in Once and Future Wife.

 Know when to stop.

My wife convinced me to watch the first season of the television production of the Outlander. After several episodes, I pulled up the book on my Kindle, and I discovered it was three times the length of most books I had read recently! What is more, I found there were seven more volumes, plus a novella that serves as a prequel. I certainly have no problem with stand-alone sequels, but this series is a long, continuing story with a complicated plot and many, many characters. You may love this series, many people obviously do, but I would have been much happier with several stand-alone books.

It is always bad when an author falls in love with writing a story rather than falling in love with the story, itself. It’s similar to enjoying dating someone more than you enjoy the someone you are dating!

You don’t have to tell everything you know about all aspects of your hero’s life. Know the story you want to write. Tell what is essential to the plot, to develop the characters, to give the reader a sense of place, and let the rest go.

 Don’t stop too soon

On the other hand, don’t stop until the characters are developed, the conflict is resolved, and the story is complete. Tell all that is necessary to reach a conclusion. I once wrote about the difference between a happy ending and a satisfactory one. A happy ending occurs, I concluded, when the main character gets what she wants. We have a satisfactory conclusion when she gets what she needs.

Either type of ending can make for a good book. Having both can result in a great book. When the author stops too soon novellas have a distressing tendency to do this in my opinion you often will find neither type of conclusion, and the absence of a conclusion can make for a really bad book.