Novel Basics Cards 6 & 7

Today we have cards for other important two characters in your novel . . .

Card # 6

The Match

The Match Card asks the question,

“Who fires up the plot car?”

 I know. I know. This is a bit of a mixed metaphor because you wouldn’t really want to burn up a car. Still, I think the image of the match works well to get at the nature of another essential character that you’ll need–someone who appears near the start of your novel to get the plot going. Once you’re onto this sort of character, you’ll see lots of them in the novels you read.

For example, a noir mystery novel often starts with some blonde, wearing a tight black suit and stilettos, swaying into the tough private eye’s office to hire him to find out who murdered the victim or where her sister has gone. Several of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels start with potential clients–though not usually sexy blondes–entering his office.

Sue Grafton has a woman wrongfully imprisoned for murdering her husband come to Kinsey Millhone to discover the true killer at the start of A Is for Alibi.

Early in Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only, the first V. I. Warshawski mystery, the private investigator heads to her office at night through steamy Chicago to meet a potential client who refused to give his name to her answering service. But she needs to pay her bills, so she goes to her office, and thus she meets a man who wants her to find his son’s missing girlfriend.

I’ve given examples from mystery fiction, but that’s not to say writers of other sorts of fiction don’t have this sort of character, too. For instance, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit begins with the wizard Gandalf arriving in town and carrying Bilbo Baggins off on an adventure.

Fiver’s horrid dream of death and destruction to the warren sets in motion the long, epic journey of the rabbits in Richard Adams’ Watership Down.

Wanting husbands for her daughters, Mrs. Bennet gets the plot of Pride and Prejudice going by sending her husband to call on the eligible and rich bachelor Mr. Bingley who has rented an estate nearby.

Card # 7

The Mouth

The Mouth Card asks the question,

“Who tells the story?”

Novelists have many options for narrators for their books and exactly how those narrators will present the narratives. I’ll give you some common choices. I’ll also note that sometimes, once you get into your novel, you might change your mind from what you write down on your card initially and what you later decide might be a better choice. The common terms for these choices are viewpoint, point of view or perspective.

By far the most common choice of point of view is first person from the perspective of the protagonist, that is, the guy or gal in the driver’s seat of the plot car. “That day when I saw this dame come in my office door, I said to myself, ‘Mike Hammer, you know she’s trouble. Gorgeous, but trouble.’”

But sometimes the first person narrator who tells the story in his own voice isn’t the protagonist, but the second most important character in the work, the ally. This can be due to a very practical reason: the protagonist dies before the end of the novel. That’s one reason why Chief Broom tells McMurphy’s story in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That’s why Nick Carraway tells Gatsby’s story and Ishmael tells Captain Ahab’s. “And I alone remain to tell the tale . . .”

(Believe me when I tell you that few things annoy a reader more than getting to the end of a novel and finding out the person telling the story has been dead the whole time.)

Narrators can be innocent and say more than they understand, at least in the early pages of the novel, like Maisie in Henry James’ What Maisie Knew, for example. Ishmael of Moby Dick is sort of an innocent, too.

A narrator can be reliable like Nick Carraway. Or a narrator can be unreliable, like drunken, deceitful Rachel Watson, The Girl on the Train, in Paula Hawkins’ best-selling psychological thriller.

Speaking of that book, it’s told in first person from three women’s points of view: Rachel, Anna and Megan. If you’re an experienced novelist and want to use multiple first person viewpoint, I say go for it. If this will be your first novel, I’d say save this choice until your later books and keep this one simple.

Another very common choice is third person narration limited to the perspective of the protagonist. All of January Jinx, my first Calendar Mystery, and most of the second, Fatal February, stick to my protagonist’s point of view in third person. One advantage of this sort of viewpoint is that it gives some distance for the reader on the action. It can do the same for you the novelist, too.

You might consider using an omniscient viewpoint, a popular choice in 19th century novels. That’s when the narrator is some sort of godlike, all-knowing creature who looks down at the characters in the book. An early and famous example of this sort of point of view is Thackeray’s Vanity Fair in which the narrator sometimes says things like “So what do you think of Becky Sharp now, dear reader?” Occasionally omniscient viewpoint cropped up in twentieth-century novels and even twenty-first century novels like Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.

But these days, most novelists stick to a third person perspective that’s limited to a couple of characters, the young woman and her potential lover in a categorical romance, for instance, or no more than four or five even in a huge book like Stephen King’s 800+ page American epic The Stand.

A word of caution about shifting from first to third person . . . In T Is for Trespass, Sue Grafton shifted back and forth from the third person viewpoint of the antagonist and the first person perspective of series protagonist Kinsey Millhone instead of sticking to Kinsey’s perspective as Grafton did with most of the books in the series. But Grafton had lots of writing practice by then. She also started the book by using third person point of view to set up that expectation before she moved to Kinsey’s usual first person viewpoint instead of springing that character’s angle on the story suddenly and without warning later on.

Andy Weir used the device of Mark Watney’s log to alternate smoothly between first person and third person sections of The Martian. Throughout Mischief in March, the third novel in my Calendar Mystery series, I have Minty Wilcox write in the journal that she calls A. M. Wilcox’s Investigation into All Things Daniel Price and thus she moves back and forth between first person and third.

Novel Basics: Cards 4 & 5

The cards for today are two important characters in your future novel, one opposed to the protagonist and the other allied, more or less . . .

Card # 4
The Boxing Glove

The Boxing Glove Card asks the question,
“Who will oppose the star of the story?”

Card # 4, the boxing glove, asks the question, “Who will oppose the protagonist as she attempts to reach the goal?” That is, who’s the antagonist of your novel? And why does the antagonist oppose the protagonist? In other words, who’s the bad guy or gal? And why?
(Actually, it’s more fun for you and your eventual reader if the antagonist has some redeeming virtues or at least is interesting.)
You can call him the villain if you like although your antagonist might have a perfectly logical reason for his despicable actions, or at least they make sense to him. For example, in January Jinx, the first novel in my Calendar Mystery series, the ignorant, so-called sheriff of Campbell, Kansas, messes with the protagonist’s goal of finding a job because he thinks he can extort a bunch of money from her.
It’s not uncommon for a novice novelist to let the antagonist drive the plot car from the start and just keep on doing that until the plot car runs right off the road. The protagonist and the antagonist should be worthy of each other. And often the antagonist seems to be winning at the start of the novel. But sooner or later she probably should get her come-uppance.
Personally, I don’t read lots of horror fiction, but I have read Stephen King’s Misery. It has a superb yet terrifying antagonist, Annie Wilkes, who proclaims herself to be novelist Paul Sheldon’s “number one fan.” She is a really scary woman, that’s for sure, and she does many bad things to the author, including forcing him to write another sappy novel in his sappy series. But eventually Paul wins out though he’s left physically and mentally scarred.
Note: The antagonist doesn’t have to be human. It can be a force of nature like the ocean in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

Card # 5
The Ear

The Ear Card asks the question,
“Who helps the star?”

This is one of my favorites. Your protagonist needs an ally, that is, someone to talk to, aka a confidant–for a very practical reason. What’s that? you ask. Answer: so you can have dialogue. Fiction needs dialogue, that is, people talking, for it to come alive and jump up off the page. Also, with dialogue comes the ability to have conflict, the essence of what fiction is about.
I once had a student who didn’t like to write dialogue, so she arranged for the protagonist of her science fiction novel not to understand a word of what other characters, members of an alien race, said. Gosh, that novel was dead in the water, and after a while I refused to read any more of it.
But I’ve gotten way ahead of myself. Suffice it to say you need to give the star of your novel someone to help him or her. At the very least, the ally can help the protagonist achieve the goals of the book by listening to the main character, that is, by serving as the protagonist’s confidant.
You can have lots of fun with the ally since there are so many possibilities for this character besides providing someone to talk to. The ally can serve as the foil to the protagonist, for instance, the lippy girlfriend who’s temperamentally very different from the serious female protagonist. The ally can be the comic relief sidekick. You can even let the ally oppose the protagonist sometimes by putting her down or by expressing doubts about his ability to make a million bucks.
Think about how interesting The Silence of the Lambs became when Thomas Harris made the loathsome cannibal Hannibal Lecter Clarice Starling’s ally by giving her information that ultimately helped her find the killer.

P. S. If you want a faster pace, you can order your eBook version of Novel Basics for only $2.99 at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B07K2LXFRP

Novel Basics: Cards 2 & 3

Card # 2: the Outcome Card

The Outcome Card asks the question,

“Does (s)he succeed?” 

In answering the question on the second card, “Does she or he succeed?” you will figure out if the who gets what she wants or needs. Or more formally, does the protagonist accomplish his goal by the end of the novel?

Let me explain through an analogy. Writing a novel is a trip, and it won’t be a short one like bopping over to the closest QuikTrip to gas up the truck–unless of course the floodwaters are approaching and your protagonist named George must get enough gas not only for the truck but also for the generator back at the house so he doesn’t lose all the frozen food in the freezer during the inevitable power outage. And that way, his family of five including newborn twins . . . Oh, I do so love to write fiction, but let’s press on.

Writing a novel is a long and maybe even an emotionally arduous and physically challenging journey. So it’s good to know where you’re headed when you start out, so you don’t get lost along the way and end up making lots of little side trips that take you nowhere.

To use another analogy entirely . . . Writing a novel is like walking on a tightrope. It really helps if you have the far side of the narrative tethered to something before you start out, if not to a specific rock or tree over there, at least in the general neighborhood of where you want to be at the end.

Besides these reservations, knowing where you’re going lets you know what kind of journey you’ll make and allows you to plan the journey.

We’ll go into those issues later, but now, you should write yes or no on the back of your 3” by 5” card.

Let’s go back to the “girl wants boy” and “boy wants girl” examples we talked about for the heart card.

Yes, of course, Cinderella gets Prince Charming.

I’ve decided to speed things up a little so here’s another card today.

Card # 3: the Star Card

The Star Card asks the question,

“Who drives the plot car?”

On Card # 3, you’ll jot down a few details about who will star in your novel, that is, the kind of person in the leading role. I put the star inside a car because it’s very important that your main character, aka your protagonist, generally drives the plot of your novel and makes its actions happen, especially as he or she nears the end of the journey.

You might not know this character’s name yet, but probably you can already make some basic decisions about this character. Will your protagonist be male or female? How old is your protagonist?

Another thing you might want to explore on your third card–at least a little bit at this point–is why your protagonist wants to accomplish the particular goal that you’ve given that character. To save a life? His own or someone else’s? To prove herself? To clear his name, or her sister’s or his brother’s? To solve the crime and thus keep the murderer from killing more people? Why does Gatsby want Daisy? That question is so easy to answer. The poor guy loves her.

Another thing to think about even at this early stage of brainstorming your novel: what about the star of the novel keeps her from accomplishing her goal and your novel from reaching its outcome right away? He can’t be perfect. None of us are. Besides, perfection is boring. Even Superman has his Kryptonite. Something internal like self-doubt might hold your protagonist back or something external like a broken leg when she’s out in a blizzard.

Tip: avoid putting a complete schmuck in the driver’s seat of your plot car. It makes most readers uncomfortable to be forced to identify with someone capable of the worst villainy without any redeeming virtues at all, an all-powerful being who, for example, wants to wipe every person of color off the planet or destroy the galaxy or remove one person in every two from the galaxy for his own peace and quiet. On the other hand this sort of character will work very well as the . . .

 

A Brief History of Plot

Some of you have asked me about terminology I’ve used recently in my Tuesday #writingtips and #writetips. Or possibly you’ve wondered about my using an inverted check mark to represent plot, so today I’ll explain an excerpt from Novel Basics, my compact yet complete guide to writing a novel.

Note: my illustrations may appear a bit unfinished because one of the points I make in Novel Basics is that writers can jot down the basic  ideas they need to start a novel on twenty 3″ X 5″ index cards in about ninety minutes.

A Brief History of Plot

Way back in 4th Century BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle gave the first guidelines to plot structure when he said that a tragedy needs three parts: beginning, middle, and end, later called Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3. He also stated that the beginning isn’t necessarily preceded by any significant action, the middle grows out of the beginning, and the end grows out of middle. A successful plot might contain a surprise like some sort of shift in the action or finding out a secret from the past.

This very simple statement belies all the variations, refinements, arguments and applications to assorted kinds of storytelling that have developed since that time. Those variations included that of Horace, a Roman poet, who later said that a play needed five acts. Both Aristotle and Horace were talking about stories performed on a stage with live actions. Some differences and divergences of how plots were structured came about with the novel.

One of the earliest ways extended fiction was structured was the still popular picaresque plot, so named because Miguel de Cervantes used this type of plot in Don Quixote, first published in 1606, in which the hero and his sidekick, a rascal or picaro named Sancho Panza, go on one adventure after another.

The picaresque plot tends to have a bunch of episodes loosely strung together, that is, just one darned thing after another. You might recognize it from the very popular Fifty Shades of Grey. (Honestly, I haven’t read that novel. But a friend of mine read the first few chapters and reported that the book seemed episodic to her.)

Charles Dickens structured The Pickwick Papers, first published in installments in 1836, in similar fashion though he did frame the adventures with an overall story about Pickwick’s wedding proposal to a woman who sued him for breach of promise for not following through at the end of the novel.

I’ll omit some of the other variations of plot structure and skip to Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, first published in 1979.

Field said that successful movies tend to have three parts: Act 1 that runs for about thirty minutes (about thirty script pages), Act 2 that runs sixty minutes (about sixty pages), and Act 3, that runs to no more than thirty minutes. Field also says that a successful movie has six essential scenes.

Not long after that, Robert J. Ray in The Weekend Novelist described the structure of a novel as similar to Field’s paradigm, but with more pages in each act because the novelist must put much more on the page than the screenwriter does. Suffice it to say that the plot of a novel needs several scenes, six or even as many as nine including scenes that cut up the large Act 2 into manageable parts.

Scriptwriters are often so precise about bringing in the essential scenes that you can time them. “Hey, hey, wait for it. Wait for it. Ah, here comes Plot Point 1, right on schedule at minute 29.” Novelists generally aren’t so precise about hitting the plot points, but still successful novels usually place these important scenes at fairly regular intervals.

Somerset Maugham, author of almost twenty novels, once famously said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” That hasn’t kept other writers from writing books on the subject and coming up with more rules, up to ten in one instance. My own take on this is that the novel you write tells you what it needs and wants to be as you write it, including decisions on structure. For example, although the classical template might dictate otherwise, Suzanne Collins divided The Hunger Games into three parts, all about the same length: Part I–138 pages, Part II–106 pages, Part III–130 pages.

As for myself, a writer primarily of mystery fiction, I prefer a more logical plot than the picaresque novel has, not one darned thing after another, but a tightly connected chain of events: that is, one more thing happens because of what happened before and the whole situation getting more and more complicated until things come together in a big scene in which the whole situation gets resolved.

My favorite representation of plot is the inverted check mark with the three major acts and the six major scenes overlaid on it because this diagram shows how the action and the tension of a well plotted novel build to the highest point of intensity in the book that’s resolved before its end.

Instead of thinking of plot structure as a formula, think of it as a skeleton, the bare bones on which you need to build your novel.

 

Novel Basics is available in print for $8.99 (ISBN: 9781730833991). The digital version of Novel Basics costs only $0.99 from October 9 through October 15, 2019–just in time for you to use it to prepare for NaNoWriMo 2019–at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B07K2LXFRP and £0.99 at http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07K2LXFRP