This is a series. Part 1 is here.
We talked earlier about novels and other long works, and how they differ from shorter stories. Although a novel also has a beginning, a middle and an ending, this is spread out over many scenes, each one building up to tell the larger story. Novels also are known for having parts that aren’t seen as often in smaller stories.
Let’s plan out a coming of age story (another idea used over and over). The story will be about a young woman who moves away from all her friends and finds herself. The twist is that she moves to take a job near the Navajo (Native American) reservation. The story will be about family: her leaving her family, resolving her issues with family, and making a new family, possibly with some of these people she meets as part of it.
First, we have to figure out why she’s doing this. Who is this woman? What has happened to make her move away from everyone? This is called backstory. Until you as the author know who this woman is and why she’s doing this, you won’t know what she’s going to do.
For example, a young black middle class American woman might be leaving home for different reasons than a young white poor British woman. And the way she reacts to what happens (and how others react to her) will be different depending on who she is.
There’s lots of ways to find your backstory. You can make a chart about her, interview her, write about her handling stressful situations. I like to just start writing and let her tell me why she’s doing what she is and where she came from. Everyone approaches this differently.
Now, the reader doesn’t need to know all that you know. There’s a big temptation to give the reader everything you know all at once (affectionately known as the infodump). But it’s a bad thing to do.
For one reason, the reader doesn’t care that this woman has brown eyes or likes spinach or dreamed of taking ballet as a child. The reader doesn’t even know this person yet. It would be like a person you don’t know coming up and telling you everything about themselves.
Too much information.
Let what you know be a secret, and only hint at it as the need comes up.
Now, perhaps you don’t know enough about the Navajo to write about living near them. There are several ways you can handle this. One is doing research. This might entail talking to people who grew up near that reservation about what it’s like, going to it yourself, going online and reading up on what it’s like to live there.
Or you could decide you would rather write about something you know more about. It’s up to you. Maybe you grew up in the desert and you want to still write about this woman going to work in a desert location, but you pick a fictitious group for her to join.
However you decide to do this, you have your basic story, taken from your basic idea (with your twist). This would be called your plot:
Young woman leaves her family, moves to the desert and learns about herself as she finds a new family with a group of Navajo (or whatever group you decide to use for this).
But she has more going on than this. We know she’s not moving to this place because of some desire to be here. We already decided she’s moving away from her family. This girl has issues, and part of her story is resolving those issues. So there’s two things going on. Donald Maass calls this second, underlying story a plot layer. Two or three plot layers are good. Perhaps her second plot layer might be that she just grabbed this job to have a job. It’s not something she likes or even is good at. So she has to deal with learning to like this job and getting along with her coworkers.
Since we’ve decided the story will be about family, there might be someone this woman meets who also has issues with family, in a different way, that intersects with the woman’s story. Perhaps the person is a coworker. It could be that helping this other person with their struggles helps the woman resolve her own issues. What matters is that there’s another story going on inside the big story, happening to another character, that is related to the main plot in some way. This is called a sub-plot. You can have a couple of those too.
The novel so far has:
- Young woman moves away from her family to the desert and learns about herself as she finds a new family (plot)
- She’s dealing with the old issue that caused her to leave (plot layer)
- She doesn’t like her job and isn’t good at it, and has to learn to succeed at work (plot layer)
- She meets someone who’s also dealing with family issues (sub-plot)
Each of these needs a story arc and a character arc, with beginnings, middles, and endings, just like the whole story has. So you see, a novel is more complicated than a shorter story. The more you want to write, the more should be going on in the story.
At this point, you should start to think about what kind of story you want to write. There are two types of fiction: literary and genre. Literary fiction is sometimes called mainstream fiction. It deals with today’s world, and mostly is about people making internal changes and becoming different people inside. Genre fiction is what most people think about when they think of novels, and the plots are mostly about people doing things and interacting outside themselves. Some examples of genres are: mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, thrillers.
The way we’ve set this up so far, our story sounds like a literary novel, and it might make a very good one. If we decided instead that we wanted to write a thriller, we could make the reason she’s left home is that a maniac was stalking her. If we wanted to write a science fiction book, we could have her join up with a UFO club (instead of the Navajo) and have them actually meet aliens. Or we could set the novel far in the future. A romance novel would have her fall in love with one of the people at her work or at the reservation (although this might make a good plot layer as well). The type of story you choose makes a difference in the way you tell the story.
This is just a little bit about novel-writing, so you get an idea of what that’s about. Since WordPress keeps eating my drafts, I’m going to stop here.