The craft of literature: hints, rules, and lies
Generic novel outline
"I learned more reading this page for fifteen minutes than I have at just about any multi-day writing conference I’ve ever attended." - David Corbett, author of Blood of Paradise, Done for a Dime, and The Devil’s Redhead.
The hints, rules, and lies listed here include gems of wisdom I’ve acquired from reading books on the craft, listening to brilliant writers, and deluding myself into thinking I know what I’m talking about.      I’ve given credit whenever I can remember who I got the gem from - but don’t blame them if I misunderstood.
Most of the content on this page came from one of the ten texts: On Writing, by Steven King Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King Writing Novels that Sell, by Jack M. Bickham Characters and Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass The Art of Fiction by David Lodge Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury On Writing by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Contribute a hint, a rule, a lie, and get a by-line and a link! Send a note to website [at] ransomstephens dot com
Establish a person in a setting with a problem. Put person on stage in motion with a goal. Establish an adversary for conflict ASAP. Develop a sequence of scenes to introduce other characters and increase suspense, muddy the picture as characters take sides. Establish subplots relating to the main plot Devise “disasters” to end scenes, propel the Point of View character into sequels (exposition of stuff happening rather than scenes), deepen suspense. Alternate Point of View but let the primary Point of View dominate The hero can’t resign – increase desperation As the book draws to a close, set a ticking clock, let the reader know “when” the climax is coming Conclude with a decision in action, climax with sacrificial decision and reversal – reveal the theme.
Good stories
Begin with the establishment of a character confronted by a change that threatens that character’s self-concept. Proceed to the formation of a goal essential to that person’s happiness in response to the threatening change. Provide dramatic events played onstage in the story in a logical but unanticipated sequence founded in reversal of expectation. Build to a climax involving moral dilemmas. Find resolution in sacrifice and provide demonstration of theme in an ultimate outcome not easily predicted by the reader, but deeply satisfying in the ending.
Revision
Tolstoy: 1. First draft, without contemplating the placement and perfect phrasing of thoughts 2. Second draft, editing out everything extraneous and allowing each thought its own proper place 3. Third draft, honing of language, turns of phrase Others: As you review your work, keep track of plot strength, emotion, character development, humor, and weight each element in the proportion you’re after. While revising, monitor your own feelings reflected by each sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, et cetera. [Tess Gerritsen] o In each paragraph, ask yourself o What character point is being established? o What mood are you creating? o What background are you suggesting? How many ways are each of these ends accomplished?
Quck hits
The villain is the architect of the plot;’ make sure the villain is worthy of the hero. [Cara Black] True evil doesn’t attack, it seduces; Satan convinces you to sign the contract. Vampires can’t come in uninvited. Put the character out there without inviting the reader to judge. Let the readers see characters from the eyes of other characters. [Ann Packer] Track cause and effect to avoid an episodic novel, it should be causal! [Martha Alderson] The location of a novel on the commercial to literary spectrum is related to the ratio of text to subtext. Every sentence must pass the ‘who cares?’ test. [Sheldon Siegel] Keep in mind what readers can and cannot fill in Be careful with different types of repetition. Don’t say it if you show it and don’t do either twice – repetition can reduce emphasis. Lots of action without scenery is better than vice versa. Quick little astute descriptions are fresh, standard descriptions aren’t. “If you’re writing a cult story, somebody has to right some wrongs.” [Barry Willdorf] Avoid thumbnail personality sketches, the quick intro paragraph rarely builds a strong character. Let the character’s character show who he is, don’t force it. Trust your reader – Show what’s going on, but don’t overdo it. Let your reader see the world you’re creating the way they see their own world, don’t force them to see it the way you do – they’ll put your book down and resent you. When you get stuck, imagine your main character sitting across the room, ask him how it’s going, then take his seat and answer. The strength of the romance is in the impediments between the lovers [James Warner]. Readers identify with a victim. [Tess Gerritsen] Write with the voice of authority and be able to convince authorities [James Dallesandro]. Take the typical and make it arche-typical [James Dallesandro]. If you tell people a good story, they’ll listen to the facts. Ambiguity has it’s place in story telling, but the facts should never be ambiguous [James Dallesandro]. The characters must be in total jeopardy - they can never have a safety net. The art of good writing for a sensitive and intelligent person is not in knowing what to write, but in knowing what not to write. No ingenious insertions can improve a composition as much as relentless slashing lines and paragraphs [Tolstoy]. In order for readers to sympathize with the hero they must recognize in him their own weaknesses as much as their own virtues. [Tolstoy] “If he is fond of eating, [a writer] cannot waste time trying to improve the taste of his [readers]. He must give them something they’re in the mood for at the moment, and only the simple old things like bawdiness washed down with a sip of moral justice are surefire.” [Slightly paraphrased from John Myers Myers book The Harp and the Blade.] The middle is the test ground where the protagonist gets the tools necessary to survive the climax. [Martha Alderson] Ending is the climax, got to bring it on home as quick as you can after the climax. [Martha Alderson]
Purple prose
Don’t draw attention to your writing, put the reader in the story so that they can feel it, don’t interrupt their experience with clever but irrelevant similes or examples of your “voice.” If you’re intentionally installing your “writer’s voice” into your prose, then you don’t yet have a voice. The voice goes in organically, when it’s forced, it’s fake. As in poetry, you have to write the “rhymey- dimey stuff first” and get all fancy after you’ve written and published a thousand poems. “If this thing starts snowballing, it could really catch fire.” [Tamim Ansary]. Shadows, even if they fall onto water, are very rarely visible. When you do see them, in no way is it a spectacular sight to behold. [Tolstoy]
Point of view (POV)
POV provides the reader access to the story and context. There are four categories of POV: 1. First person (“I loved the taste of that beer.”) 2. Second (“You’ll love the taste of this beer.”) 3. Third (“He loved the taste of that beer.” 4. Third/omniscient (“He drank the beer.”) There are a kazillion variations between third person and third person omniscient. Writing in the third/omniscient without telling a boring story is really hard. In third person, we usually drift from a very close third-person deep inside the head of the POV character, to a far third person that’s almost omniscient. The main point of POV is to make damn certain that the reader knows who the POV character is (unless you dare to write in omniscient, in which case there is no POV character) and be very careful when you switch POV. The language of a story should be consistent with the POV character – don’t write witty intellectual prose when the POV character is a numbskull. Narrative distance is the separation of the narrative voice from the character’s POV – use intimacy to show characters’ feelings and use distance to help readers focus on events. The best time to switch POV is at a disaster or mystery: (1) it makes the reader want more, and (2) it makes it easy for the reader to recall where you left off when you go back to that POV. In a POV transition, return to viewpoints where you left off the last time to ground your reader in time. POV character never sees his own face, can’t see someone sneak up, … Description must play a role in POV, not merely define a place – while writing, see the world, the scene, from the viewpoint of that character and be aware of how you proportion physical sense, thought, emotion, and intuition. The attitude of the POV character must color the description of place, otherwise, description has no role in the story. At all times in a story, the motive of the POV character must be clear.
Suspense / page-turnability
Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, but make ‘em wait [Tamim Ansary]. Expectations are why we keep reading. Carefully ration out information to draw the reader along. A reader who knows everything, doesn’t need to pick up the book. Use the reader’s curiosity to encourage them to turn pages – layer information so that as each question/mystery is solved another is ready. Don’t hand over the whole back story to the reader, ration it out and use it to engage them. Don’t give any more back story than is absolutely necessary and give it as late in the story as possible. It’s not that you want the reader to be surprised, you want them to figure it out for themselves – that’s where the juice is [Tamim Ansary]. Martha Alderson’s plot structure: Inciting incident at beginning End of the beginning, about 25% through, is where there is no turning back o should have the reader by now o good place for a time jump if you need one o can release some tension and wedge in a few plot points, o character development/motivation At about the halfway point: Emerging or dark middle, recommitment/rededication o re-ground the reader, re-establish goal o clearly defined stakes from here on o reader should know how far the protagonist is from her goal The crisis: just as the protagonist is getting confident, everything goes to hell o dramatic point of failure o tension can droop as the protagonist re-evaluates and recovers o failure can result from the clash of ideal and real or the protagonists flaws, ego, stubbornness o Everyone is fully motivated here and you can let the story fly to the conclusion The very end: how the world changed because the character changed o reintroduce character(s) to the world.
Flashbacks
Flashbacks stop everything. [Sheldon Siegel] If you find that you keep wanting to write stuff that already happened, then you’re not going forward. Stories that don’t go forward, don’t go anywhere – if you’re writing backward you need to rethink the story. [Joe Quirk] Should be rare, brief, absolutely necessary, must play a key role to increasing tension of the current scene and convey a character’s past by their expectations of the present. Flashbacks must come from a well anchored scene so you can get back to that scene after the flash. One use of the past-perfect is sufficient to indicate a flashback [Darrend Brown]. Use a physical response, like a cough, to pull out of a flashback or something like the term “anyway…” Don’t let flashbacks or physical description kill a story’s momentum.
Dialog
“Nobody skips dialog.” [Sheldon Siegel] “Dialog defines charagers... draft a scene 100% in dialog, then revise the slow parts into summary.” [Sheldon Siegel] “Dialog works best when it is very specific.” [Sheldon Siegel] When two characters talk, they aren’t quite having the same conversation. They interrupt each other, they don’t say things that the other already knows [Stephanie Moore (dec)]. Use “beats” to break up long pieces of monologue to provide cadence. Only write fresh, crisp dialog - rather than use “on the nose” dialog to work in back-story, let the narrator tell the back-story between pieces of monologue [Stephanie Moore (dec)].
Time’s passage
There is an inverse relationship between how much time passes in a story and: 1. how many words are used to describe it 2. how long it takes someone to read. For example, a dramatic scene takes many words to describe and story-time passes very slowly, but the scene will be read quickly – lots of words, little story-time, little reader-time; on the other hand, a narrative description of a bunch of stuff happening over years takes comparatively few words, story- time passes quickly, but, since it’s not very exciting, it takes a long time to read, lots of reader-time. Dramatic action – many words per hour of story-time, but lots of tension means fast reader-time. Exposition – few words per hour of story-time, but little tension means slow reader-time. In movies, a collage of continuous scenes can demonstrate both that a good deal of time has passed and give an impression of what a character has accomplished during that time. They get us right through a whole mess of otherwise boring scenes without boring us. Written stories are more difficult, here’s one technique: Use repetition of an introductory phrase followed by plot-point events that aren’t worthy of full description or scenes (i.e., relevant, sort of important, but not real interesting) in several consecutive sentences or paragraphs. Be careful, though, you’re treading the line between boring the reader and conveying to her/him that you’re not going to bore them. My lecture at the San Francisco Writers Conference 2011
Check out Brian Grove’s exhaustive list of publishers who accept submissions!
Need a little help with grammar? The Best Little Grammar Book Ever Correct Me if I’m Wrong Or just visit Arlene Miller
Ransom Stephens scientist, author, speaker
Sign up for Ransom’s Notes!
Buy
Buy
Distinguishing Genres
In a mystery, the crime is off the page and the protag solves the mystery along with the reader. In a thriller, the reader has superior knowledge, knows the crime, the bad guy, etc In a thriller something bad is going to happen, in a mystery, something bad already happened.
Buy