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How to Write a Novel & Short Story

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

One Response to “How to Write a Novel & Short Story”

  1. Terry Finley Says:

    Great info.

    Thanks a million.

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