As writers, we believe the books we write come from the soul, not a rubric. It’s true. No one reads past the first few pages of a story lacking passion, emotion, rigor, tension, drama, and surprise. Including those characteristics is more easily accomplished when the story follows accepted structural norms.
When I started writing, the process completely bamboozled me. I thought having a good vocabulary and understanding subject-verb were the biggest hurdles in penning a novel. Not even close! There’s plot, pacing, weaving multiple storylines together, dialogue, emotion–I could go on. Slamming into these requirements, often like a truck hitting a brick wall, are what destroy the dreams of so many future-great authors. How do you track all that, get it done in about 400 pages, and make it look easy?
I confess, I had no idea, but Even Marshall did. His book, The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing:A 16-Step Program Guaranteed to Take You from Idea to Completed Manuscript, provided me a step-by-step outline of what to do, how, and when. If you’re a pantser, I’ll stipulate right here you probably won’t like this book. But, if you’ve tried to pants it and it hasn’t worked, this book gives you the literary skeleton, to which you add skin, muscle, accoutrements. It’s a sixteen-step organized approach to detailing what must be included in a blockbuster novel. For years, I used it as a check list at the completion of a novel.
Here are the top thirteen tips I got as I read and used the book:
- write what you love to read. If you aren’t sure what genre you read and why you like it so much, check my series on the differences between genres. When you find yourself nodding along as I list characteristics, you’ve found your home.
- stick with your target genre. Get good at it. Understand why you like it and how to adapt your writing to those characteristics. For example, heroes are vastly differently between thrillers and literary fiction. Understand those differences and make sure your characters fit the parameters.
- we all love bad news. Make that part of your plot–often.
- determine what the goal of your story is. Yes–you must have one. Why are readers traveling this long road with you if not to learn/achieve/experience/feel?
- characters must face tremendous odds in accomplishing this goal. What those odds are will depend upon the genre. Thrillers will be physical, save-the-world sort. Romances will be getting the guy/gal.
- know your characters–whatever makes that possible for you, do it. Marshall includes a Fact List of critical details. I’ve expanded that for my own purposes. You need to know the character like a best friend so s/he acts accordingly. A note: Non-POV characters can be flat–that’s OK. But, any character that shares a POV must be as well understood as your family. Readers will notice if something they do doesn’t fit.
- consider having a ‘confidant’. This is a character that your leads can talk to, bounce ideas off of. It’s like Angela Montenegro in Bones or Watson in Elementary. It’s that person in your life you just have to talk to when life goes sideways because retelling makes it all clearer. In fiction, it allows you as author to share insider information, emotions, thoughts with the reader in a realistic manner.
- know the ideal length of your novel and make sure each character has enough time in the story to accomplish their goals. Marshall lays this out in stunning detail–story length by genre, how many scenes different types of characters should participate in. He then provides an organization sheet for each scene to be sure you as author accomplish everything necessary in that time. This includes tracking character goals through prior scenes, where and when the scene occurs, nature of the conflict, and more.
- vary the nature of sections between ‘action’ and ‘reaction’. Marshall says ‘The more devastating or momentous the failure in the action section, the likelier it is you’ll need a reaction section.’ You decide. How often has your reader critique group said, ‘Why didn’t s/he react to that event?’ Those times are when you need a section devoted to the emotional response.
- characters must fail to achieve their goals over and over, and that failure cannot involve coincidence. Each section must end with a failure.
- include subplots. This makes the story more realistic. Few people pursue only one goal at a time in their lives. Plus, subplots gives readers more to worry about, deeper reasons to keep turning the pages.
- surprise the reader. This often is what they read for–to avoid the mundane existence that is their life. Keep them guessing. Surprises must relate to the story goal and raise the stakes for the main characters. Most stories have at least three, spaced judiciously throughout the novel (which Marshall spells out for readers).
- as the story progresses, narrow the hero’s options, worsen his/her failures, and make it impossible to succeed. Have your reader asking, “How will s/he get out of this?”
Marshall goes into exquisite detail on all of these, something I absorbed, modeled and owned when I started. True confession: I no longer use his outline. The logic of what he recommends has become part of my writing process. Now, I just do it and it feels right.
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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.