Writing novels means that the writer must continually work on becoming better at his or her craft. I am constantly striving to improve, and in doing so I joined RWA and attend monthly meetings at Cleveland’s NEORWA (North Eastern Ohio RWA) chapter, have started the Three Rivers Romance Writers group, have attended numerous conferences and workshops, and have taken online classes.
During this time, my writing has evolved, as it should. (If not… boy, have I been wasting my time!) Do I look back at some of my earlier work and cringe? Perhaps. I can promise that some of it will never see the light of day… at least not in its current form.
I find that when I work improving my writing, I tend to focus on specific parts of the writing craft, but these pieces are beginning to merge into something cohesive. I have worked on “show don’t tell,” GMC (Goal, Motivation, and Conflict), characterization, and story structure. I work to use strong verbs rather than weak ones. I try to eliminate words such as “got,” “saw,” and “walked” and replace them with clearer and more descriptive ones such as “bought,” “identified,” and “strode.” and I try to make sure that my reader finds some way to personally connect with my hero and heroine. To learn more about the “show don’t tell” technique, check out this helpful guide from Jericho Writers.
This ongoing process has invaded my enjoyment of books as a reader. Now, if I come across something particularly well written, I have to pause and examine it. Conversely, I also frequently “edit” books in my head as I read them. I think that this is partly why I read so many audio books these days. It forces me to stop editing as I read!
Lately I have been working on the idea of story structure as it pertains to character development. We know stories must have an arc… a beginning, middle and end. There must be a big climax toward the end (at about the 90% mark in the book) and that everything prior to that point must lead up to the climax and build toward it.
Interestingly enough, the things I listed are expectations that most of us, as readers, have for the novels we read. We might not even be consciously aware that we expect it. Story structure is an old concept that can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. The Greek plays used this structure two thousand years ago. If you do an internet search on the Three Act Structure (or Four Act Structure … which is almost identical), you’ll find a great deal of information out there.
Basically, a novel must have 1) the initial setup, 2) the hero’s response (which includes something at the mid-point that changes the hero’s perception of what is happening, 3) the attack (where the hero shifts from responding to the entire situation to attacking it directly), and 4) the Resolution.
These parts aren’t equal in size. The set up usually takes place fairly quickly and establishes the time, place and main characters. The resolution is fairly brief as well and should wrap up any remaining loose ends.
The meat of the story is in the middle. (Sorry for the sandwich metaphor… I’m getting hungry.)
The middle is where our hero develops as a character and goes through some sort of transformation. It is essential that our hero evolves throughout he course of the story and thereby EARNS his/her goal. If he or she doesn’t learn something important about him/herself, then we, as readers, feel cheated. Of course, there is the anti-hero, who doesn’t evolve, but then that character must be doomed to fail and our story becomes a tragedy.
In our society, we see examples of this expectation being played out around us all the time. The person who puts in extra hours at work or who comes up with the next great idea is supposed to be rewarded through success. The student who works hard on a project and pays attention to the details is supposed to receive an A. The person who rescues the injured dog could well be rewarded with the loving companionship of a pet (or the thanks of a grateful owner).
Of course, sometimes life isn’t fair. Perhaps someone steals credit for another person’s ideas at work. Or maybe a teacher gives a lower grade because part of the assignment wasn’t done properly, and what if that poor rescued pup pees all over the house and chews the furniture? But, THOSE THINGS MAKE GREAT STORIES TOO! In fact, those stories are even more interesting! That’s because our hero must overcome those obstacles and learn something in the process.
The hero’s basic character flaw must be revealed, and we, as readers, must be able to see that the flaw is keeping him or her from achieving that main goal. Once our hero also recognized this flaw, then he or she needs to decide whether or not to do something about it. All of that happens in the middle of the story.
So, work on the middle. Keep it strong and interesting. And make sure your character learns some fundamental truth along the way.