Jul 22 2006
In the opening…
Generally, it’s a good idea to show or at least foreshadow the main characters.
Most writing guides emphasize an audience’s emotional investment in the characters. That’s certainly important, but I think it’s also important for fiction writers to get readers to emotionally invest in the world. Both of these investments tie in to what’s at stake. Why should the audience care
The opening should also establish the tone and mood of the piece. People that buy/read your novel will probably do so on the basis of the first few chapters (maybe just the first few pages). It’s important not to jilt your readers– if it starts out tragically, it shouldn’t be a light-hearted comedy.
In the body of the story…
If your story is your gun, scenes are your bullets. Scenes, rather than blocks of exposition that occur in a vacuum, show the characters. A character in a well-constructed scene will feel a lot more alive to your audience than, say, a character who is described like “Courtney was a middle-aged man that was kind of both proud and insecure.”
Show all the elements the conclusion needs. For example, if the climax hinges on whether the hero can save the girl, we should see the girl, the hero, and the villain long before the final fight.
I really like plotting by problems. Your characters have overarching goals and their attempts to reach their goals should create more problems and obstacles. These problems should be varied, but it will probably be easier to read if the problems get progressively worse. Save the perfect solutions for the “Happily Ever After.”
In the conclusion…
By the end, your characters should have made some hard-earned gains and your audience should care about whether your hero succeeds. In the conclusion, show us that everything hinges on success now.
The conclusion, more so than the other parts, depends on how much your villain resonates with the readers. If the villain seems competent or devious or otherwise impressive, your hero will seem much more heroic as he vanquishes him.
Additionally, the villain should only be vanquished by the hero’s actions. For example, this plot would be utterly dissatisfying: the protagonist is held hostage in her home and is finally saved when the cops burst through the door. She isn’t really the hero here because she didn’t actually stop the villain. On the other hand, if she spent the better part of the book trying to carry out a plan to secretly call 911, then she has taken on an instrumental and dramatic role.
Children’s novels are especially vulnerable to the problem that the “protagonist” doesn’t really save the day. Many authors allow an adult step in and solve the problems. This deus ex parentis is a let-down, especially because the readers are kids to begin with.
Throughout the story…
Avoid randomness. One area of particular randomness is naming characters. For example, one of my professors described a novel where the first character were Alex, Betty, Carl and Donna. Hopefully, you have a stronger reason for naming your characters than that the first letters of their names come in alphabetical order.
The strongest reason to pick a name is that it suggests something about the character. At its most basic, you’d screw weaker characters with sissy names like “Percy” and “Neville Longbottom” and give stronger characters hard-sounding names like “Jack Ryan.” For a more advanced look at the use of sounds in character names, please see this article.
Another area that trips up authors is tense changes. It’s very easy to slip into a different tense, but your readers will probably notice that. I recommend slowly reading through each page immediately after you finish writing it. This is more effective than finishing the piece and then looking for tense mistakes because your eyes will glaze over after a few pages. One of my chapters had a lot of tense problems right at the very beginning, mostly because I didn’t really know when the events I described at the beginning occurred compared to the time the story itself was taking place. I’m pretty sure my latest version has fixed these problems.
Another problem is maintaining a constant narration. For example, in “Only Human,” the narrator focuses mostly on what Jacob Mallow sees. But about halfway through, the narrator describes what’s happening across the city even though Jacob Mallow has no idea anything is wrong. Another awkward narration shift in Only Human is towards the end, when Jacob leaves the greenhouse. The perspective stays in the greenhouse with Agent Orange. I knew that was really awkward at the time I was writing it, but I kind of had to show what Agent Orange was doing with his blood.