One of the most challenging aspects to novel writing is getting your pacing right. I knew I was struggling with mine, it lagged in places and people weren’t accepting it for publication. Which meant my worst fears were true, something was off. And that something has to do with how I’ve structured my novel.
When I reviewed it, all the necessary elements were there: love interest, betrayal, love triangle, secrets. Yet something grander was missing. Actually, for me I had a two-part problem. The first part was a passive protagonist. If you’ve made this same mistake, stop what you’re doing and fix this! Too many coincidences or chance meetings aren’t going to fly. Plot must come through conflict which directly leads back to character wants and needs.
While I’d spent these years honing my writing, description, and dialogue, I hadn’t put enough emphasis on plot and structure. Now I’m back to the beginning. It’s still my story, but I have to make it tighter, force my character into conflict, heighten the risks for her so the reader is pulled along and needs to find out what happened next.
The problem with fixing structure after the fact, it’s like finding out the foundation of your house is crumbling. You can patch work it and try and make it stand, but if it’s really bad, you’re best to tear it all down and start over for a truly sound house.
So here I am tearing my novel to the ground. (Yes, it’s really bad.) What keeps me positive is all the stuff I’ve done right. I’m taking this as another learning experience on my journey of novel writing. If you spend the time at the beginning of your novel, you may not have to tear it down at the end.
The following information is taken from a much more in-depth course I took online. I highly recommend this course where all these elements are explored in much greater depth. The course is taught by Annabel Lyon and Nancy Lee. You can find the course information here: https://www.edx.org/course/how-write-novel-structure-outline-ubcx-cw1-1x-1
Let’s start with the smallest elements:
The Beat: The smallest unit of drama in a story, signalled by a change in emotional tension or character tactics.
Scene: A sequence of continuous action that takes place in a particular location at a particular time, with specific characters and told through a particular point of view. A change in any of these elements signals a change in scene.
I knew each scene in my novel needed a purpose for being there. But I wasn’t sure how to create the necessary tension in each scene, how to make it compelling. The outlining course narrowed it down for me.
Each scene must dramatize change. Every scene should have a series of beats with at least 2 distinct emotional beats. (Avoid scenes with one emotional beat.) A scene dramatizes an emotional journey. We need to see the characters either go from a positive emotional place to a negative, or vice versa. And this can be happening to more than one character at the same time. This creates conflict!
To get this right, we must outline. I know there are some who are non-outliners, but I’d only keep that to a first draft option, a “discovery draft”. After that, you need to get this right.
Elements of an Outline:
- As simple paragraph (at most a single page) description of your proposed novel, including the idea for it, a rough sketch of the plot, and an articulation of the themes you’re planning to address.
- A 3 to 4 page breakdown of the large movements of the novel. A detailed, scene by scene, breakdown of the entire novel. This can take many forms:
- Bullet points
- Index cards
- Narrative summaries
Whatever method you choose, it must be:
An outline should never tie you down!
A Scene by Scene breakdown should have four essential elements:
- One line description of the scene
- Who the characters are and what each wants
- Emotional arc for each character
- Overall positive or negative shift of the scene.
The Goal in all this is to:
- Highlight key story choices
- Solve writing problems before they come up
- Break up your writing into manageable parts
I’m starting over again but from a better place. The dream is, once I get the structure solid, the writing should come so much easier. I’m hoping for only 2 to 3 edits once this draft is done. In my mind, it’s all so clear. Now if I can just get that on the page.