The word “outline” is a polarizing one for fiction writers. We all know about this structure, but depending on our experience and mindset, we either love or loathe it.
Whatever opinion you have about outlines, it does help to have some sort of map for where you’re going, even if you only know the approximate route and have a few key landmarks scribbled on a bar napkin.
As E.L. Doctorow famously said, “Writing a novel is like driving at night in the fog. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
It takes time to find an approach that works. Experiment to find what works for you and then modify it to align with your approach to storybuilding. But have a map — even at night, you may need to pull over and refer to it now and again.
Among Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips on how to write a great story is this gem: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
What makes a story truly compelling is how that character goes about getting it. What stands in his way, and how will he overcome those impediments? One of your tasks as a storyteller is to manipulate your character in such a way that the journey feels worthwhile for the reader — even if all that character wants is a glass of water. Fundamental to this reader buy-in are the elements of conflict and stakes.
In literature, conflict is an inherent incompatibility between the objectives of two or more characters or forces. Conflict creates tension and interest in a story by adding doubt as to the outcome.
Be clear about your conflict: how the setting, other characters, or even local and global events slam into your character’s desire to get what he wants. When conflict is clear, you help the reader better understand what drives your character’s motivation.
Stakes show the reader what happens if your character doesn’t get what he wants after the altercation with conflict. Have some fun raising the stakes to force your character to take action that might be abnormally, even fantastically, out of character.
Consider this scenario: A man sits on the highway twenty-five cars back from a slow-moving roadblock on the interstate, thirty minutes from his home. He could be stuck there an hour, maybe longer. With low stakes, he’s annoyed because he might miss the first quarter of Monday Night Football. So he flips on the radio, checks his smartphone and ekes along in line.
Now, what happens if the man receives a message that his young son is mortally wounded, and he’s the only one who can reach him in time to save his life? Suddenly, he’s offroading into the median, blowing past the roadblock and racing toward his house at 100 mph with police cruisers in hot pursuit. High stakes change motivation and put your characters in interesting situations you didn’t initially imagine, which results in compelling, page-turning fiction.
Scene beats, or micro-tension, make up the dramatic action that propels a story forward. In his Wonderbook, Jeff Vandermeer calls them “micro-cycles of ebb and flow, progress and setback playing out within a scene.”
While most readers won’t identify that your scene is missing a beat, they’ll likely feel it in the way their minds drift as they consider turning another page or picking up their smartphones to check the latest Buzzfeed list.
Be sure to analyze the beats — the cause and effect — in order to maintain a measured progression of the scene’s shifts in emotional tone. Make sure they build upon one another. The character enters the room thinking one thing is going to happen, only to find something else. As he realizes this, it’s a beat. Or, the character is investigating a mystery, and discovers something shocking that changes the purpose of her quest. How she feels about that discovery, in that moment, is another beat.
If you’re struggling with a scene and you can’t quite figure out what’s wrong, lay out the beats on the page. After each beat is a decision: open the door or pretend you’re not home; get in the car or call a cab; take the blue pill or grab the red pill. What does your character choose, and how does that choice affect her? Once on the beats are laid out, you’ll be able to see where the scene is lagging — likely, where it lacks stark emotional shifts.
Drafts are hulking, beastly things. They sit in the corner and sulk as you plod through, page by page, trying to do everything at once to reach the Second Draft.
Instead of looking at your revision process in terms of drafts or versions, think of passes. Passes are lighter, more jovial folks. They allow you the freedom to consider elements of revision and to move more quickly through the process, like a painter adding layers of color to a painting that is not fully realized.
One pass might be for research, another few for character development and continuity; perhaps you add one pass each for setting, tone, and consistency of speech. Editing and re-editing the same copy repeatedly can seem Sisyphean — and eventually leads to unproductive tinkering. Identifying the passes necessary to finish your project, then remaining disciplined as you move through each pass, makes the revision process seem less arduous.
Once you have the right tools and you know what you’re going to build, how do you go about doing it? That’s where a sound personal approach to the psychology and routine of fiction becomes crucial.
You first build a novel in your head, so it’s important to ensure it’s a safe and productive place to work.
In his fabulous book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield focuses on resistance as a primary culprit in avoiding creation. The forms of resistance are myriad and highly personal.
What modes of resistance do you fall victim to on those days when writing doesn’t feel fun? Write them down on big piece of paper and hang it over your desk. In time and with practice, when you recognize resistance, you’ll stop what you’re doing and return to work. Your ability to overcome resistance is fundamental to establishing a routine. Maintaining that routine is often the only thing that will help you through the pits of despair in the middle of your novel, when the fun has drained from your writing and you’re left with the ditch-digging required to finish the project.
Dieting is a dirty word, but I love the concept of a cheat day: the one day each week when you eat anything you want and refuse to feel guilty about it.
Sure, we all want to be perfect adherents to the dogma that writing every day is the only way to improve, but sometimes life just gets in the way. And that’s okay. You may have kids, or kids and a crazy job — or all the above, plus a house with a yard. If you can make time for writing, great, but if you can’t, allow yourself one day where you don’t judge your perceived lack of productivity.
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle posits that the mere act of observing something ultimately changes that which is being observed. So stop focusing on the days you don’t write. Look away. In time, you may find removing guilt from the process, focusing your attention elsewhere, makes it easier to commit to a routine. Funny how that happens.
Fear and doubt are perhaps the most damaging forms of resistance; they’ve likely prevented more art from reaching humanity than any other form of artistic oppression.
When you’re experiencing fear and doubt, take a moment to separate fact from fiction. Break apart those things you know as fact; “writing is hard,” “finishing a novel requires that I write a lot of words,” “publishing is complicated,” from the fiction: “no one will ever read about what I write,” “writing is a waste of time and effort,” and “I have no talent.”
This is a key practice of mindfulness and it merely requires that we actively recognize and compartmentalize thoughts. We all tell ourselves various fictions about creating art. The key difference between those who persevere and those who quit is the ability to recognize the fallacy of subjective thought, and power on through despite it. To paraphrase Seth Godin: the question is not how to get rid of fear, it’s how to dance with fear.
The truth of the matter is that there isn’t any one recipe for creating great fiction. If it works, it works. The old saying about methods and madness is true: no matter how crazy or esoteric an artist’s routine, there is almost always a method present. Building your own is crucial.
You also want the next novel to be even better. Crucial to this process is understanding yourself: your your innate abilities, and those that require more work and practice.
Listen to and record what you learn from your writing projects. Take from your writing the lessons that teach you as much about yourself as they do about your craft. In time, and with hard work and faith, this discipline will help you finish the personal masterwork you’ve always dreamed of creating. You will build the method behind the perceived madness of your creative process, and the work emanating from it.