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Novel Writing 2


This is the second excerpt from Novel Writing: 16 Steps to Success by Evan Marshall

We are running several excerpts from this title from the A & C Black Writing Handbooks series, by kind permission of the publisher.

Beginning to define your lead

To begin developing your story idea you need a crisis to present to your story’s main character – your lead. But what constitutes a crisis depends on who it’s happening to.

Who is your lead? You need a rudimentary idea at this early stage: For instance, is it a man or a woman? An adult, teen or preteen?

Some genres have a gender requirement for the lead. For example, the lead in most types of romances is usually a woman. The lead in a traditional Western in most cases is a man.

Think about your target genre. Does it have such a gender requirement for the lead? If your target genre has no gender requirement and you’ve observed no predominance of male or female leads, you have a choice. Your decision will come down to whether you feel more comfortable writing about a male or a female lead.

Give the gender decision some serious thought: you’ll no doubt feel more comfortable ‘getting inside the skin’ of one than of the other. Some writers feel more natural writing about a lead of their own gender. Other writers have no difficulty portraying the opposite sex and even prefer it. There’s no correct answer; choose what feels right. But it’s a decision you must make now, before you can continue shaping your story idea.

Now think about your lead’s age. All you have to decide now is whether he or she is an adult, a teen or a preteen. It’s an easy decision: If you’re writing a novel for adults, your lead, in most cases, will be an adult. If you’re writing a novel for teens or preteens, your lead will probably be the age of your oldest target reader.

You now know the gender and at least the approximate age of your lead. Write this description, for example, ‘man,’ ‘woman’ or ‘twelve-year-old boy,’ on a piece of paper...

Your Suppose

The three crisis criteria

Once you have a Suppose that intrigues you, you must test it against three criteria to see if it will work as the crisis for your lead.

1. The crisis must be genre appropriate

In my agency we often receive novels whose crises are patently unsuited to the books’ intended genres. For example, a novel intended for preteens began with the lead, a twelve-year-old boy, witnessing the brutal murder of his father, a CIA agent, by _international terrorists. Another novel, intended as a legal thriller, began with the lead’s wife leaving him – and that was the extent of the crisis. If these writers had read extensively in their genres and considered their Supposes in relation to what they’d read, they would have realised there was no way to make their Supposes work.

From your extensive reading, you should have a good idea of the kinds of Supposes that work in your target genre. Can you imagine reading a book in your target genre that incorporates your Suppose?

Often it’s easier to ask, ‘Is my Suppose patently wrong for my target genre?’ We have little trouble recognising what won’t work. For example, let’s say your target genre is short, sweet, contemporary romance, your lead is a woman and you’ve come up with this Suppose:

Suppose a woman, while having the foundation dug for a new house, released the vengeful spirit of a man who was buried alive.

This Suppose is unquestionably wrong for a short, sweet, contemporary romance, and you’d know this from your reading. But perhaps you could work with this Suppose, shaping it so that it would work.Start by identifying exactly what aspect or aspects of the Suppose make it inappropriate. In this case it’s the vengeful spirit; its malevolence suggests a horror novel.

But you like the spirit part. Is there any way to make it work? Think about the short, sweet, contemporary romances you’ve read. Some of them have featured touches of the paranormal, but these touches have been lighthearted, whimsical, fun. So, spirits have a place in your target genre, but they’re different kinds of spirits.

Can you convert the vengeful spirit into something lighthearted, whimsical and fun? What if your lead opened a shop and, while renovating it, freed the ghost of a sweet, slightly dotty old gentleman, a previous owner of the shop, who fell through the floor 150 years ago? His body was never found, and thinking he had simply wandered off, his family had repaired the floor, trapping his spirit.

That works. Now we have the genre-appropriate crisis:

Suppose a woman renovating an old shop freed the spirit of a kindly old man who once owned it.

2. The crisis must turn your lead’s life upside-down in a negative way

A crisis isn’t a crisis unless it throws the lead’s life into serious disarray. If the crisis isn’t ‘bad’ enough, your readers won’t believe the lead would make solving it her top priority. Moreover, it won’t take the lead long enough – an entire novel’s length – to set things right, and your story will run out of steam halfway down the track.

Does our Suppose meet criterion number two? Would freeing the old man’s spirit have a major negative effect on our lead’s life? Not necessarily. How can we further shape the Suppose so it turns our lead’s life upside down in a negative way?

What if the old gentleman is so grateful to our lead for freeing him that he appoints himself her protector – and scares away every man who’s interested in her, including one our lead is interested in? That works. Here’s our reshaped Suppose.

Suppose a woman renovating an old shop freed the spirit of a kindly old man who once owned the shop, and who now shows his gratitude by scaring away the woman’s potential suitors.

3. The crisis must capture your imagination

The situation the crisis creates must intrigue you. You’ll be with this novel a long time. If you get bored while you’re writing it, you may not finish it. If you’re bored and finish it anyway, you can bet agents and editors will share your boredom – and return your manuscript.

Do you really want to run with this idea? If not, identify the aspect or aspects you don’t like and change them. In the Suppose we’ve been shaping, for example, maybe you like the idea of the lead freeing a ghost but find the idea of the ghost being that of the shop’s long-ago owner dull. So you do some brainstorming.

What if the ghost were that of a beautiful young woman instead? Perhaps she becomes jealous of the men interested in our lead. This scenario suggests other kinds of situations down the line.

Maybe you like the idea of the ghost being the old man but you don’t like him scaring away suitors. What if our lead has a partner in the shop, another woman, but the ghost appears only to our lead – and when he does, it’s to instruct her in the ‘proper’ running of the shop? This scenario suggests its own quite different set of situations.

If your Suppose doesn’t capture your imagination and you’re stumped as to what to do about it, here are some ideas for shaking things up.

Make It Worse. Change the event or situation so its consequences will be more dire.

Suppose a man lost in a hospital happened upon someone dismembering a body.

Make It Bigger. Enlarge an event or situation.

Suppose the director of a wild-animal park arrived at work and discovered all the animals had escaped and were heading for a nearby village.

Change Certain Elements. Alter certain aspects of an event or situation.

Suppose a woman found a killer waiting for her in her hotel room, killed him, and then discovered it was her husband.

Change the Locale. Drop an event or situation into a different setting – from city to country, from tenement to townhouse.

Suppose a floor of a posh London hotel were infested with tarantulas.

Combine Supposes. Juxtapose part of one story with part of another.

Suppose a woman on her way to her hotel room was taken hostage by a man on a shooting rampage in the corridor.

Once you’ve reshaped your Suppose, test it against the three crisis criteria, and make any necessary modifications so it fits all three.

Take your time devising a Suppose that works; it’s the foundation upon which you’ll build your entire novel. A poorly conceived Suppose will cause a story to crumble somewhere along the way. A well-crafted Suppose will give a novel strength and energy right to the end.

Second excerpt from Novel Writing: 16 Steps for Success, Second Edition by Evan Marshall,published by A & C Black at £12.99.

The first excerpt
The second excerpt
The third excerpt
The fourth excerpt
The fifth excerpt
The sixth excerpt

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© 2004, 2000 Evan Marshall