Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

12.40: Structuring a Novel

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard

What makes something a novel, rather than just a serialized collection of stuff that happens? How do we use structure to turn collections of stuff into something more cohesive? What tools do we use to outline, map, and/or plan our novel writing?

Reference Note: “Scene and sequel” comes to us from Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writerfirst published in 1965 (52 years ago.)

Credits: this episode was recorded in Cosmere House Studios by Dan Dan the Audioman Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Take a film or TV program, which you like, and which was NOT based on a book, and plot the novel that it would have been had it been a novel before being on screen.

Thing of the week: Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: In structuring a novel, remember Howard bleeding, and use little bits to explore your characters. What makes a novel more than a collection of small incidents? A story that goes somewhere. There is an arc, something changes. Consequences! A thread of progression. What’s it about? What’s different about writing a novel? Short story readers want an emotional punch, while novel readers want the sense of immersion. Add characters, locations, plot threads, even secondary characters can have their own threads. More perspectives and character arcs. Enough words to evoke the feeling, the emotions, to immerse the reader. Do you build in breaks? Mostly as a secondary effect from building in set pieces. If you make a high point for your roller coaster, you will also make low points. MACE, scenes, plot structure, gaps… then write, and use scene-sequel to give characters time to react, and you automatically give readers time to react, too. Outline plot threads, goals and bullet points, then pick pieces and discovery write a chapter. The breathers come naturally. You may also use a beat chart, noting what emotions you want to evoke.

[Mary] Season 12, Episode 40.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Structuring a Novel.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And this is going to take more than 15 minutes. Right?
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m bleeding.
[Brandon] Yes. For those not benefiting from the video feed, Howard, while partaking in some delectable cheese this morning, managed to impale himself.
[Howard] Oh, no, this has nothing to…
[Mary] This is not an impaling.
[Howard] This is… I potato peeled…
[Dan] He shaved…
[Howard] I potato peeled my left index finger’s fingerprint off.
[Brandon] I was not here for this event. I just walked in to a lot of blood.
[Dan] While there is no actual video feed, I did post pictures on Twitter. Half the people thought it was awesome, and half were apparently eating when I [garbled] the photo…

[Howard] [inaudible] been unfollowed by a dozen people. Well, you know it’s… I bring this up because in structuring a novel, when you are telling these big stories, little events like this… Because ultimately this is a little thing. This is not changing the overall plot of Writing Excuses or of my life, but it is…
[Dan] Because it’s the left hand.
[Howard] Yes. Yes, because it is the left hand. But it is something that allows us to explore the characters of the people in the room. Mary is helpful, and Brandon doesn’t care except there’s blood in the sink, and Dan wants to take a picture.
[Dan] I like how Mary got remembered for helping. But she was also the one to be cracking jokes like a mile a minute.
[Mary] Admitted.
[Howard] That was basically… That was super helpful. That was super helpful.
[Howard] Anyway…

[Brandon] Anyway. That actually brings up the first topic for structuring a novel.
[Howard] Wow. That was clever of us.
[Brandon] Because the first question I’ve got for you guys is what makes something a novel instead of just a collection of smaller incidents.
[Dan] Oh. I actually… This is something that I talk about a lot when I will do classes at conventions and stuff, is the difference between a story and a bunch of stuff that happens. The difference is that a story goes somewhere. I think that you’ve got… There are always examples that we can pull out, like Huckleberry Finn is on incredibly episodic novel, but it does feel like it goes somewhere because you do have an arc of growth on Huck. Like, he changes over the course of the novel. But there are other books that you read and you’re just like, “Well, there’s no actual story here, it’s just a bunch of stuff that happens.”
[Mary] I think that it’s not just that there’s a bunch of stuff that happens, or that the story goes somewhere. I think it’s that actions have consequences. And a lot of times, when you’re reading something, it is just a collection of incidents. It’s a collection of vignettes. The actions do not have consequences.
[Brandon] I would add to that that I feel the tying together of these incidents is some sort of thread of progression. It doesn’t have to be the progression you’re thinking. The classic example I usually give is Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Inferno, which I read. I was reading along, thinking, “This is just a collection of incidents, yet I’m super engaged by each one of them, and I feel like it’s going somewhere.” I realized it was just the travelogue. It was, if you haven’t read it, it’s a science fiction author who falls out a window and dies, and then travels through hell, Dante’s Inferno. They put a map at the beginning, and he starts at the outer ring and starts working away towards the center. I was really engaged by getting to the center. That was… At every place, he would have an adventure with some people who were famous people who were dead or things like this. Then, usually, leave them behind to go to the next ring of hell. Without that little tying together of we are moving toward the center and I want to know what’s there, I would’ve gotten bored with that book, even though each vignette was good. So I think that for a novel, looking structurally, you do need that thing that keeps us going even if you decide you want to write a series of vignettes tied together.
[Howard] An example of that, in a different medium, was when Peter Jackson was talking about trying to edit the 20+ hours of really good footage they had for Fellowship of the Ring down to the theatrical version, and he realized they couldn’t wrap their head around it until someone said, “This movie is really Frodo’s story about deciding to pick up the ring and take it to this point.” He said once they had decided on that narrative, everything they edited in to include acts in support of that. And… And this is something that isn’t visible if you haven’t seen the later films… And acts in support of the things that they knew were going to come later. Because you have to lay some groundwork for those. But after hearing Peter Jackson say that, I went back and watched the theatrical version. Every scene suddenly made more sense because I could understand why they picked that one.
[Dan] This is why I say that a… The difference is that a novel has a story, because it leads somewhere. You’re right, that first Fellowship movie, that’s where it’s leading. Everything’s getting us to the moment where Frodo makes that decision. You could totally make an entertaining version that’s just there’s all the best footage we got, but that’s not a story, that’s a highlight reel.

[Brandon] So, Mary. I meet a lot of writers who are short story writers who want to instead transition to writing novels, and they have a lot of trouble with it. As somebody who does both, do you have any advice for them?
[Mary] So one of the big things to understand is that there is a fundamental difference in what people are reading for. Short story readers are reading for that swift emotional punch in the gut that we’ve talked about in the short story episode. Novel readers are reading for that sense of immersion. So when you’re giving them the novel, what you have to do is you have to give them more of the world. This means additional characters. Also, all of the decisions that we make in a short story about oh, I want to stay in this location so that I don’t have to build another set with more words, try different locations so that you’re giving a bigger sense of the world. Additional plot threads. The way I look at the plot threads is, again, you can use the MACE quotient as a tool for finding them. You can say, “Okay. So my character is primarily dealing with an event, and there’s a character, what questions do they have? What things can go wrong with their environment?” So you can introduce threads that way. You can then look at your secondary characters and decide whether or not any of them get plot threads.
[Brandon] Right. This is the big advice I usually give is let’s expand who some of these other viewpoints are so you can have another perspective. That’s part of what… Not the only way, but part of what makes a novel different from a short story is you can show multiple people on the same quest or whatever it is you’re doing for your main plot and have their perspectives contrast one another.
[Mary] I do want to be clear that just because you’re giving another character a character arc doesn’t mean that they have to be a POV character. Because you can do this with a single POV.
[Brandon] That is true.
[Howard] A lot of new writers don’t put enough words down on the page to evoke the feeling that they are feeling when they think about the story. Often the right question to ask is what is it that you want to evoke in this location? Do you want people to be spooked by the cemetery or do you want this to be a peaceful place of remembrance? What are the words that you need to use to put that… To make that work? Then, in writing groups, and this is where writing groups are so critical, you get that feedback from your readers who will tell you, “Oh, yeah. The cemetery felt like a very peaceful, wonderful place.” “Oh, you weren’t scared?” “No.” Oh. Well, then there are words missing. There are senses that you haven’t deployed. You told us what it looked like, but you didn’t tell us what the sounds were. You didn’t tell us what the creepy smells were. It’s not just padding. It is working to evoke the emotions that will immerse the reader, as Mary was saying, it will immerse the reader in this story that you’re trying to tell them.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Which is Memory of Water.
[Mary] Yes. So, I went on this reading adventure where I decided I wasn’t going to read any books written by Americans. Because I do see what was going on in the rest of the world. I read this novel, Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta, a Finnish author, and was blown away by it. Because it… The narrative style is very definitely not American. It’s set in a future where climate change has caused not just a change of coastline and all of that, but clean water is very difficult to come by. Her family has a teahouse. So water, and clean water, is very important to this teahouse, but it’s also water is so carefully controlled by the government that there is… There’s a lot of regulations, and indeed there’s… Finland has become somewhat fascist in terms of how they’re handling it. It’s just… It’s really… Great… It’s very much a coming-of-age story, it’s also so evocative of place. It is one of those novels that in other hands could be a collection of scenes, but it takes you on this progression as she is coming to understand what it is that she does, and the importance of water. It’s just beautiful. Just the language is lo… I mean, it’s in translation, but the language of the character development is really, really lovely. So it’s Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta. I apologize to Finland for my pronunciation.

[Brandon] All right. So, structuring a novel is the title of this podcast. We’ve mostly talked about this idea of smaller incidents or short stories. Let me ask you this, specifically. When you are structuring your novels, how do you look at the pacing? Do you build in breaks for a novel where we’re going to slow down a little bit here and let people take a breather, or do you try to go breakneck the whole time?
[Dan] I tend to build breaks into it, but as a secondary effect of building in set pieces.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Dan] I want to make sure that the roller coaster has big high points, and that means, by nature, there is also going to be low points in it. So I do it, but backwards from what you’re suggesting.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] I do it… This is actually one of the places where I am more likely to discovery write.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] So what I will do is I lay it out… I lay out my MACE quotient and all of my nesting things and figure out all of the scenes that I have. Then I grab Dan’s seven-point plot structure and map my… The points that I have into those and look for gaps. But then when I’m writing, that’s when I will deploy the scene-sequel tool, because I’m like, “Oh, this was huge, and I actually need to get my characters time to react to it, which will also give my readers time to react to it.” So that’s something that I’m much more likely to discover as I’m writing than I am to necessarily plan ahead that this is going to be a rest scene.
[Dan] I absolutely agree with that. The scene I’m thinking of in particular is in John Cleaver five where a character returns, and I won’t say who it is, but an important character returns out of nowhere, and the outline gave John one scene to deal with it. That was not enough. He needed two. I had to write more. So there was an entire extra chapter inserted because he had to process that.
[Howard] I do not pay attention to when the reader has to get up and take a bio break or eat or whatever else. Because I’m just not a considerate enough writer.
[Howard] I count on the scene-sequel format to take care of that for me, because I feel like regardless of when I tell them they should take a break, the reader’s going to put the book down when the reader needs to put the book down. Scene-sequel helps make sure that those things are there.
[Mary] Let’s briefly define scene-sequel since it’s something we’ve talked about in previous epi… Previous seasons, but I don’t think we’ve touched on here. The idea is basically that in your scene, action happens, and in the sequel, recovery happens. That’s a very short, compressed version.
[Brandon] I’ve found that in my own structure of a novel, which we’ve talked about in previous seasons, but I’ll go into a little bit here, I naturally get this. My structure of a novel is that I outline by plot thread. Usually using the elemental genres from last year, which we built off of my entire plotting method. I identify a mystery, I identify a relationship, I identify these things, and I build bullet points in my outline underneath, of things that need to occur. Usually I build these backward, I say, “Okay, this is where I want them to be, this is how we’re going to get there…” Backward bullet points. So my outline is a big list of goals and bullet points. Then, when I’m creating a chapter, I take some of those… I’m like, “All right. These two characters need to have this event that I’ve outlined that they need to have. This thing needs to be discovered, and this place needs to be revealed for our sense of wonder.” I now have three pieces of a chapter, I stick them together, and I discovery write a chapter that achieves those three goals. This is where the discovery writing comes in for me. So, very naturally… If you read my books, particularly the longer ones, you will find that chapters almost all have a beginning, middle, and end to themselves, that I’m structuring each like a little novelette. Because often in the big books, chapters are 7000 words. So we have beginning, middle, and end. Whether they are breather or not depends on how big a moment one of those bullet points is. If we’re ending one, then it’s big and explosive, and I will naturally, in the next chapter, do a different character and some of the things they’re doing which are in recovery mode, unless we’re at a climax, which is where we go from explosion to explosion to explosion.
[Howard] Credit where credit is due, real quick. Scene-sequel comes to us from Dwight Swain who wrote a book 50 years ago called Techniques of the Selling Writer. So that’s where we get this scene-sequel terminology. Been with us for a while. I’m sure Swain’s text is still applicable to what you’re doing.
[Dan] I want to point out really quick that depending on the kind of book you’re writing, you might have several scenes before a sequel, which I think might have been what Brandon was asking in his original thing. My thrillers, and by this I’m thinking of the cyberpunk books moreso than the John Cleaver books, where the intention is to be very fast, and to not give you a lot of room to breathe. Sometimes, to reuse my roller coaster metaphor, sometimes you go down a huge hill immediately into a couple of loops. You’ll have two or three oh, we just got out of the frying pan, now we’re in the fire, now we’re… The whole house is burning down, and then and only then, after three of these, do you finally get a breather.
[Mary] Sometimes, also, and a lot of people don’t grok this, that the sequel can actually… In some cases, it’s just a line or two. It does not need to be an entire giant chunk on its own.
[Brandon] It doesn’t? Sorry.
[Mary] No. No, no. This is one of those places where learning to trust yourself and your own tastes and your own emotional responses to what you’re writing are very useful, as well as getting feedback from readers about what they’re needing. Actually, in The Calculating Stars, which is… One of the responses that I was getting from my readers in the first version was that I wasn’t getting enough space. Actually, ended up splitting the book in two so that I could give more breathing space.
[Howard] One of the… As we talk about scene-sequel format, there’s something that I’ve also talked about, which is the beat chart. Which I will often incorporate in my outline, which is a thing on the side of the outline that says what is it I’m trying to evoke, what is it I’m trying to accomplish at each of these points. It might be I want you to be interested about what is happening with the plot, I want you to be feeling emotion for this character, I want you to be having your stand up and cheer moment. It’s not what is the purpose of this scene storywise, it’s what is the emotional beat that I want to happen to the reader. Because, while I am an inconsiderate writer who doesn’t care about when you need to go to bed, I am considerate of what you are feeling because I am trying to manipulate that. If I put that into the plan, I’m more likely to get it right.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and end here, and ask Howard to give us some homework.
[Howard] Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Okay. Take a film or a television program that was not based on a book, so you can’t use Game of Thrones, you can’t use The Expanse, you can’t use The Lord of the Rings movies. Take a film or a television program that does not come from a book that you like, then, after seeing it or assuming you’re familiar with it, sit down and write an outline for it in which you are expanding it into a novel. Not novelizing it, not doing the Alan Dean Foster novelization of Star Wars. No, you are writing the novel that is what this movie would have been if it were a best-selling book.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.