Fundamentals of Writing a Novel - Part 2
Continuing with the fundamentals of novel writing – those basics of any novel – we’ll take a look at a few more essentials that make up the list for authors to consider before embarking on writing a full length novel.
Part 1 looked at things like Planning, length, plot, POV, characterisation, conflict and structure, so now it’s the turn of The Beginning, Ending, Dialogue, Exposition and Balance.
The beginning/The Hook – the opening must have a good hook in order to draw the reader into the novel. If you don’t, the reader may not bother to read your story.
The hook works like a fishing hook. You dangle it in front of the reader in order to lure them. The best novels do this with great opening lines and once hooked, the beginning gets right into the action. Don’t spend three pages explaining everything to the reader before anything interesting happens. Let that interesting thing happen right at the beginning, in the first paragraph. A life changing event, significant action or, literally, you open it with a bang – whichever way you do it, grab your reader’s attention from the start and don’t let go.
Ending/resolution – The ending is just as important as the beginning. It must tie up loose ends, resolve all sub plots and story strands and it must be a satisfactory conclusion for the reader. If not, then the whole story will fall flat.
You may not always have the exact details of the ending in mind when you start your novel, and that is quite common, but at least have some idea; otherwise you could fall into the trap of creating a deus ex machina (a contrived set of coincidences that help to force the conclusion of the story).
The ending should form organically from the story. Never force it.
Dialogue basics – Too many self-published novels contain so much woefully written and badly structured dialogue that it is fundamentally clear that the writer hasn’t even learned the craft of fiction writing. Many writers don’t know a thing about dialogue tags, punctuation placement or order of dialogue to action, so it’s vital you understand the basics.
The best way to understand how dialogue structures work is read other well known, successful novels. You will see how it’s laid out, how to introduce characters when speaking, how to break up dialogue with brief description and how to punctuate correctly.
Exposition – lack of exposition, too much exposition and indirect exposition. We’re talking description. Most new writers are under the misguided impression that novels don’t need that much description – it takes up too much room and it’s boring to read.
If that’s the case, what is the point of reading a book? Without description, how does a writer expect the reader to understand what’s going on, how can they empathise with the main character, how can they immerse themselves in the story?
Like it or loathe it, a good book needs plenty of description in the right places. In other words, description is vital for those key scenes to help build a picture for the reader. For example, imagine a painting with no colour, nothing in the background, nothing in the foreground, no textures, no perspective and no shape, other than a drawn stick man. This kind of picture lacks imagination, it consists of hardly anything. It tells the observer absolutely nothing. And that’s how a book without description appears. Who would want to read something that has no substance?
Description in the right places gives the reader colour, background, foreground, textures, perspective and shape. It allows the reader to imagine themselves within that scene; it draws them in and lets them be a part of it. It’s the staple of any good book.
Indirect exposition is known as ‘show, don’t tell’. This is where action scenes, important scenes or atmospheric scenes help with tension, atmosphere and pace. This type of exposition allows the reader to share those moments.
On other occasions, the exposition can be minimal, just to allow the story to flow. This is the ‘telling’ part, the unimportant stuff that writers don’t have to show the reader and it should be brief and to the point. Writers often make the mistake of explaining far too much, when it’s not actually necessary. This is known as an ‘info dump’.
So, if the scene is important, then it demands the right depth of description to show atmosphere, tension, emotion or conflict. Other, less important scenes will require brief descriptions here and there, just to give some colour and layers to bolster the narrative. Peripheral, transitional and low key scenes need nothing more than very brief exposition = the writer is ‘telling’.
It’s all about getting the balance right. And talking of balance...
Balance – in novel writing that means finding the right balance of everything, but most importantly it’s about the balance of dialogue, description and narrative. Get that right and the reader will enjoy the novel because it has the right amount of dialogue, the right amount of description and the right amount of narrative.
Get the balance wrong and the reader may not enjoy the book so much because the other elements are lacking or missing or there is too much of one or more of them, but finding that balance becomes easier the more you write and understand your own strengths and limitations.
Finally, learn the conventions of fiction writing and respect them. Until you become an award winning, best-selling author with millions in the bank, you should stick to guidelines; otherwise you’ll get nowhere fast. When you become successful and famous, then you can break as many rules as you want, so until then, keep to the tried and tested formula if you want success.
The best way to study all these is to read plenty of well-written books by established authors. It’s the best way to learn.
Next week: More on Novel Lengths
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