Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Never Hit Fast-Forward When Writing A Novel

I decided very early on in life (around the age of 13 or 14) that I was going to be an author. All it took was a single extra credit assignment, and the look of disquiet on my teacher's face, to let me know I had discovered something I was good at. It took a lot of years to get where I am today, and in those years I've had to unlearn certain bad habits. One of the first problems I recognized in myself as a writer was my tendency to lean on fast-forward until I got to the good part.

You probably know this already, but don't do that.

The sun rose. There were some trees. Next chapter.

Learn To Stretch Out, Without Rambling

As a writer, I tend to lean toward the Architect end of the planning process. I take a lot of notes, bounce my ideas off other creatives to make sure my logic is sound, and I always make sure I know where my story is going so I don't get lost in the slog. This means that I have a series of stepping stones that I'm building bridges between, and I'm bringing the reader along for the ride. Building those bridges is tedious, but without them the reader falls and drowns in the swamp. Game over.

I know I can't keep writing the story until my bridges are in place... sometimes, though, I have to remind myself that those bridges need to be strong, stable, and believable. That every scene, and every chapter, deserves the same amount of careful thought and attention to detail as the upcoming shootout, criminal interrogation, or climactic courtroom reveal, even if it's just a few main members of my cast talking over bacon and eggs in the morning.

Tell me where we're going, again?
If you're writing a novel, you face an interesting balance. On the one side of the scales, you want to make sure you trim all the fatty bits off so that your story is as smooth and tight as you can possibly tell it. On the other side of the scales, a novel has room to stretch. You can delve into details which, in a shorter story, would be glossed over or omitted entirely.

Your challenge, then, is to build your bridges in a straight line, without rushing through construction to reach those islands.

Every Scene Needs To Mean Something

Think of your book like a movie. When you're watching a movie, every frame is shot and composed in a way that gives you important information. When you see your anti-hero in the prison yard pumping iron, you aren't just getting a shot of a tattooed, shirtless guy. You're showing him in his natural environment, and you're giving the audience symbolic associations. If he's doing body weight exercises (push-ups, sit-ups, etc.) then we know he's tough, and self-sufficient. If we see him lifting heavy weights, like deadlifts or a bench press, that's short hand for raw, physical power. Running often implies determination, especially in a prison setting, because even though he's going nowhere, that's no reason to surrender to the walls all around him.

The symbolism here should be pretty obvious.
Your book needs to use that same sort of formula. Do you need to describe every branch, every mile on the highway, and give us the constant, repetitive cycle of your hero getting up, going to work, and coming home? No, because that will get boring very quickly. However, your "bridge" scenes are meant to introduce key elements of your story your readers need to know. These bridges establish the feel of your world, the personality of your setting, the relationships between your characters, and the motivation of your story.

For example, if you're writing a detective story where a pair of cops are tracking a serial killer, you need to have plenty of bridges to lull your audience into a false sense of security. Every time the partners talk about their lives, or go out for dinner, or split up files to read, we are getting a glimpse into their world. We're seeing if they're friends, or just co-workers. We're seeing if there's physical attraction, or emotional intimacy. We are getting invested, and that's why in eight more chapters, when one of them has been shot, and the other has to make the decision to provide first aid, or run after the killer, there's real tension in your readers' shoulders.

Those good parts you want to fast-forward to? Those are the explosions. Explosions are meaningless without the rest of the story to put them into context. That's what your bridges are; your readers' context for why those explosions are good, bad, heart-warming, pulse-pounding, or just a definite end to the tale you were telling.

Hopefully this week's Craft of Writing post was helpful for some of you. If you'd like to help support me and my blog, you could always get a copy of my book New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam. If steampunk noir isn't your thing, though, you could always stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little bread in my jar. As little as $1 a month can make a big difference. Lastly, if you haven't done so already, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to stay up to date on my latest releases?

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