Fiction Writing Dos and Don'ts
Writing Tips For The Day
I hate Mondays. I really do. But this blog is about writing, with a few other topics thrown in, so today I want to talk about book structure.
I always write with a well-thought out movie in mind. I don't mean that I think of my novel as a movie, but rather one that follows the same rules. The rules, by the way, of a good movie script work for a reason.
Like a good movie, your novel needs to be in three parts. An exciting beginning, a rock solid center, and a dazzling third act that makes readers drool for more.
The opening is really important, actually ‘important’ isn’t the best word. Crucial works much better. I hope you’ve noticed the huge changes in comedy, movies and TV over the past twenty years. The same goes for novels - maybe even more so.
It’s those opening pages that reels them in. Like I said before, you’ve got three pages to lock your reader in a bear-trap.
People don’t need your book to be entertained; they have tons of fun things to choose from, all at their fingertips. You have three pages to excite them. Bore those readers in the first three pages of your novel and I promise you they’ll go elsewhere for enjoyment.
I recently checked out the opening of a new book, and the first three pages described the basement of a house and the furniture it contained - with several paragraphs just for a couch. I felt sorry for the writer, because in his head, that was the most interesting opening he could think of.
Don’t make the same mistake.
Anyhow, back to the three-part structure.
The opening needs to have great dialogue, extremely interesting information, fantastic action…or a clever combination of the three. Drop your reader right into the soup of your story, and at the same time ease them into the bare bones of your storyline. And remember, subtle is good.
Some frontloading is good, but not too much. Keep your readers wanting to find out what happens next, and curious about your characters and the problems they face.
I think it’s good to show what your hero can or cannot do during the opening. Is your main character a really smart scientist? Show that. A gifted sorcerer? Show it. Is your hero telepathic, good with animals or even a normal teenage girl? Show, don’t tell the reader…show them.
You want an example of boring? Three pages of telling the reader how special your main character is. Have that character doing something that demonstrates their abilities. Jump right in.
Is your hero not so heroic until later on in the novel? That’s fine, we all root for an underdog….but show us. It’s up to you to give a clever example in your opening pages that shows the reader the fallibilities of your main character. Show, don’t tell.
The opening act is also where you can set up threads, plot devices and pivotal characters. We’ll talk more about this later. I think the opening can best be described as your foundation; the reader is introduced to your main characters, and whatever threat they face.
Bricks and mortar come next.
The second act should contain the meat of information you need to convey, the building blocks of your book. How are your heroes going to face off the threat they are facing and what will they do to prepare themselves? Is a journey involved? Special training? Gathering forces to the good side?
Please remember, though, this isn’t the time to spend shopping for clothes, hooking up with the opposite sex or pontificating on the problems with healthcare today. I’m not saying you can’t do these things, I’m saying that if you use such devices as filler you are going to lose your reader.
We will touch on jibber-jabber dialogue and slowing down your novel later.
Right now I want to you take in the fact that everything in your novel needs to move it forward one way or another. A concert experience for your main characters? Fine, but ask yourself this: Does it help the storyline? Does something important happen at the concert? If not, then why is it in your book? A novel is supposed to convey heightened tension and increasingly more dire circumstances at every twist and turn….how does going to a concert help that in any way?
The second act really has one purpose in my opinion - and one purpose only. To set up the third and final act.
It isn’t the place to start a new thread, but there is one thing you can do to keep the reader turning pages, and that’s to introduce new minor characters. These characters should be fascinating and they need to work well pushing your story along.
The third act is where you really show your mettle as a writer. Now is the time to banish all thoughts concerning a sequel and give everything you have to an ending that sucks the eyeballs right out of your reader’s head.
This is where it all comes together. A clever twist ending, a battle to end all battles. It all happens here. This is also where you tie together those loose threads, plot devices show their true colors and pivotal characters that you painstakingly set up earlier come together with a bang. I don’t know what you are writing about, so I can’t offer any specific advice.
I can give you a few numbers. If you stick with my 80,000 word limit rule, then at least 15,000 should be devoted to the finale.
Opening Act: 15,000 to 20,000 words
Second Act: 35,000 to 40,000 words
Third Act: 15,000 to 20,000 words
Wind-Down: 2,500 to 5,000 words
It’s not an exact science. This is just a rough guideline for you to think about.
The Wind-Down? Technically, that’s included in the final act, but I made that term up just for you and I think every decent book should have one, although many don’t. And you certainly don’t need to take my advice concerning the Wind-Down word count. That’s just a suggestion.
The Wind-Down, though, is where you can set up a sequel, after the final explosion and the dust settles. The reader gets a glimpse of the main character’s life after the battle has been won in the Wind-Down. It can be standing on a beach gazing at twisted wreckage or ten years into the future at a wedding. It’s completely up to you.
Wind-Downs, however, should be short and sweet. Emphasis on the sweet.
This is just a quick bit of advice concerning the way chapters are concluded in your novel. Some of you may have never thought about it, and that is why I’m bringing it up for discussion. Both of these excerpts are from Tip of the Spear.
I jumped to the concrete and faced off the horde. A demon smiled in the darkness, fondling a weapon I couldn’t quite make out.
I looked down in surprise - my chest was suddenly painted with dozens of laser dots.
What I am sharing above is the end of a Chapter 1. Its sole purpose is to entice the reader into turning the page and continue reading. Below is the end of Chapter 9.
Bits of paper and other debris danced in the AAG diver’s powerful light, but that wasn’t all.
The well-dressed bodies of the passengers and crew were floating eerily and perfectly preserved in the darkness.
Hundreds of them.
The Empress had become, quite literally, a ghost ship on the bottom of the ocean.
We, as writers, want our readers to keep turning pages. Sometimes a spooky chapter ending works, other times funny lines or dangerous situations get the job done.
As a writer, it is your job to keep the reader turning pages….in much the same way a casino is designed to keep gamblers in. Perhaps that isn’t the best comparison, but you get the idea.
Remember; make your reader want to move on to the next chapter. If you do this well your book reviews will read ‘I couldn’t put it down’ or ‘a real page-turner’.
This is a very good thing.