Many writers take on the task of writing a novel with little forward planning – especially for their first attempt. This often results in major problems for the writer. One of the most common problems is: The manuscript is meandering or disjointed because it lacks focus.
Take the following scenario as an example:
An aspiring novelist writes 20,000 words of a novel manuscript and doesn’t know where the story is heading, so they go back through the manuscript and cut 10,000 words to refocus the story, then they write another 15,000 words, run into the same problem and put the manuscript aside or ignore the problems and keep writing to 80,000 words only to realise they still don’t know what their manuscript is about nor how to fix it without rewriting most of it.
The above scenario is about getting to a basic draft which is a cohesive novel-length story, so the writer has a story concept in place. Only then could the work of revising and moulding the writing to effectively convey that story and of polishing the fine detail properly begin.
Having a basic story concept in mind before writing can go a long way to avoiding a scenario like the one above. Some writers will prefer the freedom of having a general idea and developing much of the medium and small scale detail as they write, while other writers will prefer to plan a lot of detail before writing (as discussed in On ‘Losing the Plot: Plotting in advance VS writing as you go’).
The following pointers may help in developing direction for a novel manuscript:
Decide what makes your novel manuscript a single cohesive story
Just writing about various characters and events in the same fictional storyworld doesn’t necessarily make for a unified story. Below are a selection of story types which are unified by the goal of a main character:
Survival: a character strives to stay alive (The Hunger Games, The Night of the Living Dead, Behind Enemy Lines, 2012)
Road trip/physical journey: a character strives to get from one place to another (The Wizard of Oz, The Silver Sword, Little Miss Sunshine)
Redemption: a character proves their worth or makes up for a failure or misdeed (or a failure or misdeed the character believes they have commited) (Anchorman, Cliffhanger, Ace Ventura 2, The Lion King)
Justice: a character strives to protect the innocent from harm (Batman, My Sister’s Keeper, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, True Grit)
Revenge: a character punishes someone for something they have done (Cape Fear, Sleepers, Kill Bill, The Brave One)
Love: characters strive to be happy together (Romeo and Juliet, Twilight)
Ambition: a character strives to achieve a difficult goal which they are under no outside coercion to pursue (Macbeth, Scarface, The Pillars of the Earth)
Once a writer has a general idea of the kind of story they want to write, they may benefit from examining a range of stories of that kind to get some ideas about what was done well or not so well in each of those stories, what has been done a lot and what has not been done so much, and how similar or different they want their story to be from various aspects of each of those stories.
What is the main conflict (or the main theme tying together the various conflicts of an ensemble of characters)?
– The dramatic question
Some have described the beginning of the main conflict as coming about by raising the main dramatic question (Will the main character survive?, Will the main character make it to their destination (or will the main character successfully carry out their goal at their intended destination)?, Will the main character prove their worth to someone important to them (or will they realise that they don’t need to prove their worth to that character)?, etc) and the end of the resolution of the conflict as the answering of the main dramatic question.
In this sense, the bulk of a novel manuscript can be thought of as the process of answering a single question from when the question is first developed until the question is definitively answered (or abandoned in light of a more important question).
What are the major developments or stages the main conflict (or each main conflict) goes through before decisive action is taken to resolve it once and for all?
– Sequences and chapters/scenes
Distinguishing a series of stages to how the dramatic question is tackled by the character(s) can help develop ideas for sequences (multiple consecutive chapters) and key chapters or scenes, while the writer also has a good idea of how they fit into the whole manuscript.
– Rising tension/escalating stakes
Some suggest stories are best when the stakes get higher and higher for a character as the story progresses, so a reader’s emotional engagement gets stronger and stronger (because the reader cares what happens to the characters).
– Main plot/sub plot
A sub plot can add variety to the content and pacing of a novel manuscript while the stakes keep getting higher in the main plot.
– Multiple narrators
Using multiple narrators can add elements such as suspense and irony throughout a novel manuscript as a reader knows important things that some characters don’t know (including that some characters know important things that other characters don’t know) and some characters know important things that a reader doesn’t know.
How do you set up the main conflict for a reader?
Once a writer has a good idea of the main conflict and how it fits into a satisfying overall story experience, they will be well-equipped to make decisions about what they need to establish (or at least what they would like to establish) for a reader to understand and appreciate the main conflict.
How do you resolve the main conflict?
Resolutions tend to be most satisfying when they come about from the decisive action of the main character (or the decisive actions of the main characters in an ensemble).
A character’s motivation for choosing to resolve the main conflict the way they do can also be very important as it tends to have a major impact on what a reader thinks about the character. For most stories, an admirable motive which is indicative of some underlying personal growth for the character is well advised.
What loose ends are there to tie up so a reader’s main questions are answered and they feel satisfied? Are there any notable unresolved questions deliberately left unanswered? If so, what are you aiming to achieve by leaving them unresolved?
You can follow the writing journeys of a range of Australian first-time novelists at Writing Novels in Australia and gain some insight into how they each approach such issues in their novel manuscript.
The Australian Literature Review