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How to Write a Novel and Short Story

How to Write a Novel & Short Story – Suspense

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

How to write a Novel & Short Story – Part Four

Suspense, or Keeping the Reader Reading.

“We do our best to paralyze the reader – freeze him to the book. All quivering helplessness, he waits to see what is going to happen next.”

           William Foster-Harris, The Basic Formulas of The Story (1944) Norman:Univeristy of Oklahoma Press.

We need readers to worry and wonder about what will happen to the characters next. We need them held in suspense. Suspense is defined as “the condition of being insecure or uncertain,” in Collins Complete and Unabridged English Dictionary, 2005 Edition.
Frey says that what is undecided is a story question. Story questions make the reader curious, not usually straight out questions, but sometimes they are, they are statements or situations that require further explanation or they could be problems that require a solution, a forecast crisis like a meteor hitting the earth, a death threat, and the like.

“When Dad got released that day he knew he would never go back, not now – whatever happened, not now he knew what he had to do. He just had to figure out how.”

So in this opening the story questions that are asked are:

Why was he in prison? Why won’t he go back? What does he have to do? How will he do it?

This sort of story question, when placed right at the beginning of a story, they are almost always used in a short story, is called a hook. Frey is of the view that both short stories and novels should have a story question, or hook, within the first two sentences. This device should not be used too often and should raise a legitimate question about characters and situations that will be answered.

Kafka, in The Trial begins the story:

“Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine day.”

Who traduced him, and why? Why was he arrested? What will happen to him?

Notice too how Kafka also manages to garner our sympathy immediately. This is a very effective technique that if deployed properly will create curiosity and encourage sympathy immediately. The other form of suspense is anxiety and apprehension. Because we have a character that the reader is fully empathising with the reader will want good things to happen to this character. So a little girl who has just been orphaned will generate sympathy, if she then is kidnapped, or as Frey puts it, if the character is plunged into a situation of menace, anxiety is created.
In other words bad things are happening to sympathetic characters. The menace could be social disapproval; a teacher being wrongly accused of molesting pupil, this kind of suspense occurs when there is a reasonable expectation in the reader that bad things will happen to the character with whom they sympathise, identify and empathise.
The most powerful technique is the “lit fuse” technique. In the old Batman television show, from the sixties, each first episode ended with the dynamic duo tied up and about to be cut in half. Or in the James Bond films where Bond must stop the rocket from being launched, even though he’s dangling over a tank of sharks, with no hope of escape and blindfolded. In Jurassic Park, when the two kids and the adult must clamber over the fence, the action switches from the frantic scramble over the fence and then back to the hut where each lever has to be pulled down. In The Trial “will Joseph K. prove his innocence?” is an obvious example.
In action films, such as Indiana Jones, there will often be many scenes in which the fuse is lit, often such films simply consist of this form of suspense.
Frey sums it up:

“Suspense, then, is a matter of creating story questions, putting the sympathetic characters in a situation of menace, and lighting the fuse. It is making the reader worry and wonder.”

Of course the suspense concerns the dynamic characters discussed earlier.
How to Write a Damned Good Novel, James N Frey, 1987, St Martins Press: New York.
How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, James N Frey, 1994, St Martins Press: New York
Solutions for Novelists, Sol Stein, 1999, St Martins Press: New York

Characterisation – Inducing the Fictive Dream

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

Writing a Novel or Short Story – Part Three

James Frey says that “A transported reader is dreaming the fictive dream.” He supports this idea by quoting John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction (1984), in which he argues that “this [the fictive dream], no matter the genre, is the way fiction does its work.” For Frey the fictive dream is created by the power of suggestion. By this he means that the prose must be full of vivid detail and close observation to pull the reader in to the story. If the prose becomes too telling the reader will be pushed out. Once the reader is seeing the scene then emotional engagement with the main character is required. To achieve this use the technique of garnering sympathy, so, for example, in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather we find ourselves sympathising with the old man whose daughter has been raped. He seeks the help of Don Corleone, the sympathy we feel for the old man is transferred to the protagonist. In your story it could be a man or woman down on their luck, lost a child, lost a leg, whatever. We feel sorry for him or her. Once we have the reader’s sympathy we need to have them identify with the protagonist. So, our protagonist needs a noble cause. In The Godfather Don Corleone’s cause is to punish the rapist, we can identify with that.
Once the reader has identified with our protagonist we need to draw them further in, so that they empathise, they feel what the protagonist feels and can understand why he feels the way he does (from identifying with him or her in the first place). In order to do this we need to carefully incorporate sensuous detail into the prose. This suggests to the reader what it is like to be him or her. We want the reader to feel the anger, shame, hope, love, lust or whatever. The details and emotions must be linked, the use of similes or metaphors will enhance the experience for the reader. The details and the action that evokes the emotion must also be linked, with good use of simile and metaphor to enhance the experience.
Once the reader is transported they must be kept there. This is achieved by the use of conflict; this can be both internal and external. The conflict could be between the character and the environment, an innocent Aristocrat sent to prison for rape offers possibilities, or an irony, a lawyer who loathes the law, a doctor who wants to join the SAS.
The characters must of course have a motivation or drive that informs everything they do. Carrie, in Stephen King’s novel of the same name is driven by her desire to be like the other girls. In our earlier example the Dad’s driving force would be to make it up with is son. So, a main character needs to be driven and dynamic. He must want something desperately, so much so that it pushes him into actions that are out of the ordinary for him and the reader.
James Frey, in How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, puts it his way,
“Dynamic characters have conflicting emotions and desires and are torn apart by strong emotions, such as ambition and love, or fear and patriotism, or faith and lust, or whatever.”
The characters are riven by internally conflicting forces and desires. They resolve these inner conflicts with action that leads to story conflict and more inner turmoil. Frey quotes Edwin Peebles, who writes, in A Professional Storywriter’s Handbook, that characters “must have the uniqueness of real people. They must have the contrasts of inconsistent behaviour common to individuals…contrasts make character.”
Contrasts Bring Characters to Life
Aristotle said, in the Poetics, that readers like an “effective” character, by which he meant competent, in other words good at what they do, whatever that may be. This will ensure identification of the reader. So, the protagonist in a novel should be interesting, in that they are unusual, they may have unusual hobbies, vices, or have done an amazing thing that they keep secret. They will have considered life carefully; this may extend to areas of philosophy, jurisprudence, ethics, and morality, and so on. They may have strong and unusual opinions, but such that the reader will sympathise with him or her. It is likely that they will be a little wacky; Frey’s advice is to exaggerate a characteristic. Think of Colombo, the detective, shambolic, untidy, but effective. A good contrast heightens curiosity and can stimulate an affection for the character and thus increase sympathy and so the menacing circumstance, in which the the character will be placed. In turn, as we know from the essay on suspense, this means that the need to know will continue the fictive dream. And remember this kind of juxtaposition makes literature. The character may have a distorted morality, stealing is okay, for example. But don’t go too far or the reader will not believe in them. Characters are of course involved in the story conflict that is created by the dynamic action that the protagonist engages in to overcome an internal conflict that in turn leads to more inner conflict, and so more story conflict, until there is a climax followed by the obligatory resolution.
Characters must be interesting is a simple way of putting it. One way to know a character is to write a detailed biography of him or her. Write ten or fifteen thousand words about your protagonist, make him interesting in every way, and know his speech, his attitudes, motivation, driving force, loves hates, and so on. Frey gives a great range of advice in his first How to Write a Damn Good Novel.
A character may have a ruling passion in your biography, and at the beginning of the story, it could be as simple as wanting to win the eight ball pool competition at the local bar. This will be overtaken by a new ruling passion if his wife is killed: to bring her killer to justice. His old values may be distorted by the new driving force; this will create inner conflict and lead to story conflict and action. The ruling passion of the protagonist, or any character, is not immutable, it can change temporarily, and may change back at the resolution stage. All of this creates the dramatic tension in a dynamic character driven novel. Whilst the main character may revert to his original ruling passion at the climax and resolution stage he will still have undergone a change, because of his experiences, and his character may have undergone change because of the action. If his ruling passion is reverted to it is usually accompanied by a change in his perspective on life, and a renewed understanding of something, using our earlier story as an example, Dad is reunited with son, but his experiences are such that he values relationships more than money now. This kind of transformation, as long as not an obvious cheesy cliché, will add to the drama of the story.
If your main character has multiple personalities, which are probably the most interesting, a character who has a secret exciting life as gambler, or some such, may get in to all kinds of scrapes. Frey suggests that we consider such characters as ego states. Treat them as separtate characters with the same identity.
“According to the psychological theory of transactional analysis popularized by Eric Byrne in Games People Play, the ego exists in three ego states, the parent, the adult, and the child.” (Frey, p.43)
Consider these ego states as separate characters, so they say and do things in a different way dependant upon the character they are in.
If the scenes that have been created, or indeed the story as a whole, needs to be rewritten, try writing it from an earlier time, and give the characters different objectives. This will help the visualisation of the whole scene in a fresh light.

How to Write a Damned Good Novel, James N Frey, 1987, St Martins Press: New York.
How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, James N Frey, 1994, St Martins Press: New York
Solutions for Novelists, Sol Stein, 1999, St Martins Press: New York

The Premise of a Novel, or Short Story.

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

How to write a Novel and Short Story Part II

The Premise and Characterisation

There are, for Frey, three kinds of premise:

· The Chain Reaction Premise
· The Opposing Forces Premise
· The Situational Premise

The chain reaction premise involves the protagonist being caught up in an event, or happening, that is then followed by a chain of events that change the character; through to a resolution that proves the premise.

So in Metamorphosis, by Kafka, Gregor wakes one morning to find himself transformed into a giant bug. He is gradually rejected by his family, and those who knew him as human, in a series of incidents narrated from Gregor’s point of view; eventually he dies: rejected, alone and hidden. The insect is a metaphor for a deviation from a norm. So the premise could be: if you deviate too far from the socially accepted norms you will be rejected, isolated and die alone.

In a story that seeks to prove an opposing forces premise the opposing forces create or generate action that befalls the protagonist, who then overcomes various obstacles whilst changing as a person, usually for the better, in such a way as to prove the premise. “Greed destroys idealism” would be a premise of this type, “Love conquers everything but alcoholism,” would be another.

Another way of looking at it is to consider it as a formula:

X vs. Y = Z

Love of Mother vs Love of Wife = Divorce
Love of Wife vs Carnal Love of Mother-in-Law = Horrendous Divorce & Misery

A situational Premise is best suited to an Emile Zola kind of examination of human behaviour, set in extreme conditions. So in The Jungle one could argue that the premise is “Poverty and exploitation destroy families.” Another example would be Tim Obrien’s The Things They Carried in which he tells a number of war stories that each have their own premise.

In a multi-premise novel, such as Anna Karenina, or The Things They Carried it is because they have more than one story. Arguably The Things They Carried is a collection of Short Stories and Anna Karenina has two stories within it, Crime & Punishment is another example of two stories entwined. They have more than one premise because there is more than one story. So, in a story about a family you may have two brothers who are each protagonists in their own stories. They may switchback, alternating chapters, flashbacks, or whatever device the author chooses. Look at the text as being a collection of stories, each with their own premise that needs to be proved.

How to Incorporate a Premise

If you have an idea for a story, for example, you want to write a story about a man who is reunited with a long lost son after years of forced separation. It needs a premise. Or it will be boring.

· Opening Situation
Dad gets out of prison, or a coma, or just feels guilty.

· Inciting Incident
Dad’s little boy gets ill, nearly dies, he thinks of his long lost son.
He decides to look up his Son, he imagines the wonder of it when they meet and how happy they will be to be re-united, he’s missed him for years.

· Complications
His wife isn’t happy about it all – complication.
He doesn’t know where to start looking – complication.
Meets old friend who knows bent cop who’ll help – complication.
He gets the address but then the cop gets caught and has to give reason for looking for son, makes up a crime and gets son arrested – complication.
Father makes contact with son and his mother, son rejects him, ex-partner blames him, in the meantime his wife leaves him, taking his young son with her – complication.

· Climax
He has a confrontation with his ex and his wife.

· Resolution
This leads to the son agreeing to meet the Dad, the cop gets caught red-handed in another corrupt practice, Dad spills the beans, takes the rap and saves the Son. The Son loves him after all and even gets on with Dad’s latest wife who has returned and respects his paternal love.

The premise being “nothing worth having is easy to get” or “blood is thicker than water”.

How to Write a Damned Good Novel, James N Frey, 1987, St Martins Press: New York.
How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, James N Frey, 1994, St Martins Press: New York
Solutions for Novelists, Sol Stein, 1999, St Martins Press: New York

How to Write a Novel & Short Story

Monday, February 18th, 2008

How to write a Novel and Short Story – Part One 

This essay considers the correct approach to writing a novel. Whilst limited to novel writing, the ideas of characterisation, premise and scene development are also applicable, to varying degrees, to short stories; the views and suggestions of Sol Stein and James N. Frey, in their respective publications: Solutions for Novelists, and How to Write a Damned Good Novel I & II. First considered are some practical suggestions by Stein, then scene construction, a novel’s premise, the different types of premise, and the effect of changing the premise. Because the premise, or sub-text of a novel, is fundamental to story development, and success this will be examined in some detail and draw heavily on Frey’s theories. The final section of the essay will consider both authors’ approaches to characterisation. Frey’s approach is favoured in the areas of premise and characterisation, whilst Stein’s practical approach to scene development and construction is given more weight. Frey considers that a “damn good novel” must be focused around a dynamic character and be written in third person, limited to the main dynamic character. Stein does not consider that point of view should be considered so rigidly. All of the ideas expressed in this essay, in the main derived from Frey, can, it is submitted, be applied in any novel, regardless of point of view.

Stein states what may seem obvious when read, but is often ignored in practice. “The needs and wants of a reader are paramount,” a reader expects to explore an experience that is different from and greater than his or her everyday life experiences. Stein urges us to consider, at the planning stage, the following needs:

As reader picks up a novel to see something out of the ordinary, as Sol Stein puts it, “the sports’ spectator seeks the excitement that does not usually occur in daily life”. (p. 8). In other words, do not let them get bored. Ever.

Secondly, like Frey, Stein argues that strong characterisations, and not plot, are what become memorable to readers. For Stein and Frey characters are what make a story evocative, and memorable.

So, consider the experience of the reader in each scene and that which the scene is seeking to achieve. Is it necessary? Could you read the story without that scene?
Consider the effect of each scene and the order of scenes at the planning stage.

A synopsis is usually necessary but should not be used for planning.

Stein advises the use of index cards to note each scene. A separate card for each scene; one can usefully make notes on the back. In this way one can also experiment with the order of scenes. This technique can be usefully combined with Frey’s idea of “premise,” which will be considered further on in detail.

It is important to understand that premise is distinct from the idea of a story’s “theme” and “moral”; the themes and morals of a story are also distinct. A theme has been said by Dean Koontz in How to write Best Selling Fiction as “a series of related observations (in scenes) about one aspect or another of the human condition, interpreted from the unique viewpoint of the author”. Frey describes the theme(s) as “recurring fictional ideas, aspects of human existence that are being tested or explored in the course of the novel.” (p. 54) But the same idea would be equally applicable to shorter stories. Examples would be The Jungle and Emile Zola’s ideas of using characters in stories as a kind of laboratory to explore human behaviour and explain it.

The moral of a story is something like “crime doesn’t pay” or “blood is thicker than water” and so on. It is obvious really and not essential.

The premise, which will be considered in detail later, is described at length by Frey but can be summarised as a statement of what happens to the characters, as a result of the actions of the story, described in its scenes. From this one can see that the importance of scenes is obvious: they prove the premise. Stein considers scenes at some length, and believes that they should create tension, conflict, suspense, convey information through dialogue, and contain “action”. He asks his readers to consider some questions to focus the mind:

· In what way does the reader feel an emotion, affection, sympathy, or compassion that the author requires from the scene? Frey puts it more bluntly when he suggests that we must first sympathise before we can identify with and ultimately feel an empathy with a character, especially the main character. This idea of characterisation will be considered at length in due course.
· Is there another character in the scene in opposition to the main character in that scene? If so, is the conflict subtle or overt? Is it physical or psychological? Is it internal or external? Is it an adversarial situation from which the main character in the scene emerges triumphant, or does the main character suffer a set back?
· Is the main character in the scene, the one whose point of view you are using, the character most affected by what happens in the scene?
· Is the scene described in terms of action that takes place?
· NB “action”, for Stein’s purposes, can be physical or internal. For example, an argument that progresses on an exponential curve can be an action, even though there is no physicality in the scene.
· Is the scene visible? Is it showing, not telling?
· Does the end of the scene keep the reader reading on to the next scene? As Stein puts it succinctly, “never take the reader where the reader wants to go.”

As Stein summarises, “the reader is moved by seeing what happens to the characters engaged with each other.” Everything that occurs in a scene must be necessary to prove the novel or story’s premise. The scene outline that is created on index cards will assist in ensuring this, as well as in highlighting superfluous scenes, but it is the writing that creates tension, suspense, and a need to know.

The essence of book-length suspense is to keep the reader curious, especially at the end of each chapter, and to frustrate the reader’s expectation by the way an author starts the next chapter. In a short story the same would be said of each scene. Of course there may be less opportunity to develop a character in a short story so information dump and characterisation is best contained within dialogue and action.

The scene outline will allow the writer to identify scenes with no action or conflict within them and those that do not add to proving the premise. Such scenes are usually information dumps and telling. Take that scene out or redraft it.

An example of a premise would be to say that,

“Blood is thicker than water; love is thicker still, even surpassing differences in class, but such love usually ends in tears.”

The actions of a story are contained within the text, and prove the premise of the story. The premise of the story is contained within the subtext: the actions in the scenes, and the transformation, usually of the main character, whether this is an epiphany, triumph, or even disaster, will show that the premise is proved.

Frey asks us to consider whether there are any actions in the story that are not evidential (either for or against) the premise? Does the scene add weight to the premise? Is the premise proved sufficiently?

Frey argues for a test to be applied to a text:

If the order of events (actions) can be changed without changing the story there is probably no premise or the story is not developing well. If the story is proving the premise then the chances are development is occurring. If to change the order of the scenes would be to change the premise then the scene order is effective.

“A premise says that through a causal chain of events, one situation will lead to another, and will eventually lead to a resolution.” (p. 58, Frey)

There are three type of premise for Frey:

1. The Chain Reaction.
2. Opposing Forces.
3. Situational.

Each will be considered in the next post.

How to Write a Damned Good Novel, James N Frey, 1987, St Martins Press: New York.
How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, James N Frey, 1994, St Martins Press: New York
Solutions for Novelists, Sol Stein, 1999, St Martins Press: New York