Writing Workshop: Overview of the Storytelling Process

I am working on, among other things, a short guide to writing a first novel, tailored generally around the NaNoWriMo experience. It’s based on some prewriting projects I made up for my dad and sister last fall, and all of the little lectures and lessons I’ve written up since then, trying to share my training and experience with them as they’ve worked through revisions and rewrites.

This morning I got an email from my little sister, asking me some general questions because she’s wanting to try her hand at writing, too, and she hasn’t been part of any of my earlier correspondence. She asked me a handful of questions that lent perfectly to the sort of information I’d been providing Heather and Dad since last fall, and in the process of just answering them, I hit all the basics of the ideas in my little How To book.

I felt like it was such a good overview that I wanted to share it here. This is, in brief, everything you need to know to get started writing a novel.

1. Do you write your novels straight through or do you jump around writing the scenes that are most clear to you then going back and tying them all together?

I generally imagine my books in something of a random order, scenes jumping out to me that would be AWESOME, or whatever. When I sit down to write, though, I almost always write from start to finish.

That’s not to say that it’s the best way, it’s just the way that has worked best for me. A lot of writers will say that if you’re having problems with a particular scene, leave it and go work on a scene that you’re more excited about. I’ve never really experienced that. If I’m having a problem with a scene, it’s basically because I’m having a problem with the overall story, so I have to either force myself to work through it (which is the real trick), or just switch to another book altogether. I usually have 2 or 3 books active at any given time, so that’s always an option for me.

2. How long should a chapter be? Is there any formula for a chapter like there is in a whole novel?
I usually aim for 15-20 page chapters. Dad’s been doing 6-10 page chapters and, frankly, he’s read a whole lot more books than I have, so his target is probably just as legitimate (if not more so). I know Dan Brown (of The DaVinci Code) wrote really short chapters — sometimes as short as 3 pages.

As for what a good chapter should contain, that’s a kind of complicated answer. An easy way to deal with it is to write a full scene in every chapter. A scene consists of narrative (that is, stuff actually happening, not just the writer telling the reader about something, which is called “exposition”), generally occurs in a single place (just like a theatrical scene), and progresses the plot. A plot consists of a series of obstacles that the protagonist must overcome, usually in escalating difficulty and usually in a linear order, so that resolving one obstacle reveals the next, harder obstacle, but also often provides the tools that the protagonist will need for the next challenge. So, given that, in order to progress the plot, a scene should either show the protagonist encountering a new obstacle, or overcoming the one he’s currently working on. You could probably also spend a scene setting up an obstacle that’s going to come later, like showing the villain placing an elaborate trap.

Anyway, I think a chapter should cover a single, whole plot element, just like a sentence conveys a single, whole idea. You could write one obstacle per chapter, or one scene per chapter (where there’s usually 2-3 scenes per obstacle).

Of course, many writers never think about any of this at all. They just put a chapter break wherever the story seems to call for one. Some people try to put breaks at moments of conclusion, so the reader can conveniently put the book down. Others deliberately avoid that (trying to keep their readers enthralled) so they only put breaks at cliffhangers. And, of course, some don’t use chapters at all. As with most things, I say go with your gut instinct for any first draft, and if you want to follow a particular scheme, wait until the rewrite to set it in place. In keeping with that, I usually don’t do any chapter breaks at all in a rough draft.

Instead, I will put section breaks (3 blank lines, to create a gap on the page) whenever I skip time or change the character I’m focusing on without stating it explicitly in the text. Usually, when I’m doing the rewrite, I’ll just pick one of those section breaks and make it a chapter break.

3. What is a good word count for a chapter?

Word count is useful to publishers because it’s consistent from one page size to the next, so that’s why you’ll hear serious writers talking in word count. No matter that your font or font size, double space or single, it always comes out the same.

If you’re using a standard font, double-spaced on an 8.5x11in page, you’ll get right around 300 words per page. Interestingly enough, the industry standard fonts in publishing are smaller than 12 point Times New Roman, and the pages are, of course, single-spaced, and the page size is smaller, and magically it still comes out surprisingly close to the same 300 words per page (in both cases, it’s a little bit over).

So, if you want to, you can just write a book in 12 point font, double-spaced, and compare your page count directly with the page count of one of your favorite books. It’s going to be match up within about 5-10%.

All of that is just an effort to explain why writers use word count, and why it may or may not be useful to you. It is a direct stand-in for page count, though — it’s just more accurate. So when I answered your previous question, “15-20 pages,” that’s exactly the same thing as multiplying it by 300 and saying, “4500-6000 words.”

I could have just typed that sentence in answer to this question, but I thought you might want to know why we sometimes use one and sometimes use the other.

4. What are the basic elements all stories should have in your opinion?
There are several different ways to answer this question, usually with sets of three.

My preferred answer is that every story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s pretty much my definition of a story.

Another set of elements, and a more popular one (because it’s less vague), is character, setting, and plot.

Both of these sets work well together. You use character, setting, and plot, to create the story. It’s not a complete story, though, until it has a beginning, middle, and end.

Let me explain all of those bits.

Character describes all of the active agents within the world. Usually people (but, obviously, not necessarily). A lot of time, we’ll say that the setting became a character, when a stormy moor interacts with the other characters and essentially expresses emotion and seems to have an agenda, or something like that. Usually, though, characters are straightforward. You have dynamic characters and flat characters. Dynamic characters undergo a fundamental change to who they are, during the course of the story. Most of the time, in today’s literature, you want the protagonist to be dynamic. Maybe he starts out as a zero and then he becomes a hero. Maybe he starts out idealistic and full of hope and, even though he wins, he ends up burnt out and jaded. That’s called a character arc. Flat characters, on the other hand, stay the same. These are usually characters with quirky personalities who are just in the story to keep it moving, like sidekicks and comic relief characters, but there have been plenty of flat heroes over time (like Superman, for an easy example — the only way his character could change would be for him to become less good, and nobody wants to see that). There’s lots of examples of very dynamic supporting characters, too, of course. Think Urkel from whatever show it was Urkel was on. Of course, as he changed more and more, he eventually became the main character, but initially he was just comic relief. Also…and this is mostly academic, but many people forget that the narrator is a character, too. Some writers take advantage of that, giving the narrator a distinctive voice or maybe making his description untrustworthy in some way, but most of the time he’s treated as a perfect, impartial historian relating the events of the story. By default, it’s safe to assume that, but that’s still a character description.

Setting describes the place(s) and time(s) in which the story happens. If it’s different from the present-day, real world (such as a fantasy novel or alternate history), setting includes any changes that the author makes. If it does take place in the present-day real world, setting is the individual bits of the real world that the author chooses to put scenes in (and, I suppose, any other things going on in the world that have an impact on the story).

Plot I referenced briefly earlier. A plot starts with a premise, and then immediately adds a major obstacle, which changes the protagonist’s world in some way. This can be good or bad (a death, or a marriage proposal), but it’s got to be significant. People inherently resist change, so as soon as the obstacle is introduced, the protagonist will want to undo it — he wants to find some way to restore his world to the way it was before, so he goes on a sort of quest. There must, naturally, be obstacles in the way. How many times have you watched a movie and thought, “You know, if he just didn’t answer the phone, none of that would have happened.” Well, that’s an obstacle, and without it you don’t have a whole plot, and without a plot you don’t have a story.

Anyway, you generally want the plot to have a story arc, which could be graphed as an actual arc. It’s not symmetrical, though. Usually it starts off with a big jump (that is, the main conflict of the story) then rises gradually from start to climax, then drops off pretty sharply as soon as the climax is resolved (and, with it, the last major obstacle is overcome).

That provides your beginning, middle, and end. The beginning is the part where you introduce the setting, the protagonist, and the conflict that changes the protagonist’s life. The beginning should be short. The phrase we use is “Get in late, get out early.” Start telling the story as late in the process as possible, and stop telling the story as soon as you finished revealing everything needed. The middle is the series of obstacles that the protagonist overcomes along the way, and the climax is the end of the middle. During the climax, the detective solves the murder, or the bride says “I Do” — or, maybe, kicks her cheating fiance to the curb — either way, the conflict is resolved and life can get back to normal. Then comes the end. The end, technically named the “denouement,” is the part where life actually does get back to normal. You can tie up any loose ends, but there’s not really obstacles being overcome or anything — it’s just information dump. Like the beginning, the end should be as short as possible.

5. What could a book do without?

And, the most important part of my answer to this question was in that last paragraph. Get in late, get out early. Don’t spend a ton of time setting up what the protagonist’s life was like before the conflict, because the story is all about his life after the conflict. Now, you do need to include a little bit of information so that it’s clear how things have changed, but you shouldn’t spend chapters on this. The conflict should appear within the first chapter. Whenever possible, it should happen on the first page. That’s my rule of thumb, anyway.

In the same way, don’t spend a ton of time on tying up loose ends. Don’t make a bunch of loose ends. Your only goal in the book is to tell a single story. Keep to that story. Yes, all the minor characters have interesting, rich, full lives of their own, but we’re not talking about that right now. We’re talking about their role in this story, which has nothing to do with who forgot to get the shopping done and whether or not someone’s mother-in-law is a jerk. You can add those sorts of things to “increase the realism.” Don’t. Just tell the story you’re telling.

Personally, I also avoid spending a ton of time on descriptions — of characters or settings. I try to give all the important details (and give it early — there’s nothing worse that reading on page sixty that “she ran her hand through her bright red hair” when I’ve been picturing her as a brunette since page four), and nothing else. People have a natural talent for imagining scenes and people, and that’s most of the pleasure of reading a book. You do need a certain amount of description to set characters apart. Making all the Weasleys redheads was incredibly effective, because it made it easy to remember which characters were Weasleys. And if a character hadn’t been seen in several chapters (or books), she could always say something about Percy ducking through the door, his flame-red hair mussed by the wind, and you remembered instantly who Percy was. (Not that anyone ever forgot Percy, but you can see how it could be useful).

Now, that whole bit is my personal opinion. There are writers who are famous for their incredibly rich, detailed descriptions of scenes and people (Stephen King and Robert Jordan are two obvious examples), and there are fans who love the level of detail they give. Readers vary greatly on this, so I recommend using whatever level of detail in your writing that you prefer in your reading. I prefer only the necessities, so that’s all I write.

Some technical things a book should do without:
“Very.” Never, ever, ever, ever write “very” in text, unless it’s in dialog. Psychologically, “very” has the opposite of it’s desired effect. If you say, “She was beautiful,” the reader thinks, “Hmm. She was beautiful.” If you say, “She was very beautiful,” you see, “very” doesn’t actually add any specific information, so it makes the reader think, “Wait, how beautiful.” Without the “very,” the reader never asked the question — he just accepted the information. But once he’s asking, “How beautiful is ‘very beautiful,'” you pretty much have a reader who no longer trusts the narrator, and that’s the opposite of what you want.

“He Spoke,” “she declamed,” “he roared,” “she questioned,” “he wondered aloud,” “she hollered.” Don’t use those when attributing dialog. Use “he said” and “she said.” When readers read dialog, they skip over the bits that aren’t in quotes. You can pack all kinds of information in there, but readers barely even glimpse it. It’s just the way they work. So all the time you spend coming up with the perfect synonym there just gets in the way. It’s in the writer’s best interest to just go with the reader’s instinct and say “he said” and “she said,” and leave it at that. It looks boring when you glance at the page, and it feels boring when you type the same word over and over again, but to the reader, it’s actually a whole lot easier.

And, finally, helping verbs. Most of the time, when you find a helping verb (or a verb that ends with “-ing”), you’ve got a weak sentence. “She was going to the store” is not as strong a sentence as “She went to the store.” In the same way, “She started shooting some Nazis” is not as strong as “She shot some Nazis.” Of course, there are times when weak verbs are necessary — generally when setting up a strong verb, as in, “She had been going to the store, but then she shot some Nazis.”

6. What is a simple way to make sure my novel doesn’t suck?

Everything I said here. Have a clear, focused story, and tell only the story (not a bunch of extra information), but do make sure you tell the whole story: beginning, middle, and end. Evaluate and control your story arc so that it keeps rising toward an exciting climax — that will keep the readers involved. Use strong verbs, and focus on narrative instead of exposition.

Hmm. I mentioned those two earlier, but they’re pretty crucial in answering this question. Narrative is telling the reader what happened. Exposition is telling the reader about what happened. You could say, “She was kind,” or you could tell a short story showing her being kind. The second is far more powerful. You can say, “Then he went to the store, bought all of the supplies he needed, drove to the bank, and stole a bunch of money.” That’s exposition. Or, you can say, “Sweat stood on Henry’s forehead in spite of the cool afternoon, and he couldn’t stop himself jerking his head at any sound, eyes darting. The cashier watched him, and that only made things worse. Henry took a deep breath, held it for a second, then forced it out slowly and turned down the aisle, searching for something he could use to hide his face. A ski mask, pantyhose, anything. Even makeup would do. This stupid little convenience store was all candy and chips, though, and when he glanced up, Henry caught the cashier watching him in the big round mirror. He bit back a yelp.”

It’s a lot more words, obviously, but it’s storytelling. That’s your goal. And that’s what writer’s mean when they say, “Show, don’t tell.” Focus on narrative instead of exposition.

And finally — and this is of utmost importance — rewrite. Honestly, you can ignore every single piece of advice I gave above, for your first draft. I recommend it. When you sit down to write a story, your only job is to get the story on paper. It doesn’t need to be good. In fact, your first draft will suck. There is no simple way to avoid that. There’s no way to avoid that at all. My first drafts suck. Dad’s first draft sucked. I’m sure Tolkein’s first draft was garbage, and those eleven years Rowling spent trying to get her first book sold, I guarantee you she was rewriting it.

If you try to make the first draft good, you’ll never be able to get it down on paper. You will never finish it. I promise. Get over that right now, before you even put pen to paper. Accept that you’re going to have to rewrite, and just write down the story.

Now, after that’s done, all you’ve got is a sucky first draft. Then you have to have the discipline to actually do the rewrite. It’s fun, though. You can see the change, on a daily basis. When you rewrite, you make your story not suck. You may not have a clear, focused story when you first sit down to write your rough draft. You might not have anything other than a handful of characters, some without names. That’s fine. Once you’re done, you can reread what you wrote, and find out what the story is. So when you go to do a rewrite, that’s when you make sure that you have a clear, focused story. That’s when you make sure that you tell only the story, but do make sure you tell the whole story. That might sound like impossible advice, but once you have the first draft in front of you, it’s a simple matter of pruning the stuff that shouldn’t be there, and filling in whatever holes aren’t covered.

You can do the same for everything else I mentioned, in the rewrite. You don’t have to avoid helping verbs in your rough draft, but when you get to the rewrite, you can look at every sentence and make sure it has a strong verb. Sometimes, in a rough draft, you just can’t make yourself write a scene so you say, “Then he went here and did the next thing, and once that was done, he could finally head to Rio, where the cool stuff happened.” Okay, fine. That’s exposition, and you basically skipped a chapter. During the rewrite, you can fix that. Actually, that’s kind of fun because it gives you an opportunity to do some creative work in the midst of an otherwise mostly technical process.

So, yeah, I’ve given you some specifics, but the real answer to this question, is “rewrite.”