1.Start mid-scene and keep the story moving!
2.Sketch characters quickly and concisely and unpack their motives and complexities by action throughout the story.
3.Maintain suspense, do not reveal early. If there is sexual tension/possibility, defer, defer and defer the consummation.
4.Action drives the plot and reveals character.
5.No pontificating and explaining until the end when motive, means and opportunity are revealed.
6.No backgrounding and scene setting at the start.
7.Dialogue must be to the point, revealing either character or plot [or both].
8.We must want to keep reading and discover ‘what happens next’ = a good old page turner.
9.The ending is foreshadowed at the beginning and the story is a satisfying whole where it ‘all makes sense’.
10.We want to find out what happens, yet do not want the story to end.
Okay, on the one hand this adds nothing new to what I have been taught in the few creative writing workshops I have done in the last year. On the other hand, becoming aware of what was happening in me when reading a quality detective story and then making this list did give me a fresh insight and a template against which I can keep checking the progress of the fourth draft [total rewrite] of my mystery/romance set on the Camino.
On the other hand, as a former academic there is always an ‘on the other hand’ and always a caveat, how different would these insights have been in the mid-nineteenth century when there was not the same emphasis/obsession with ‘showing, not telling’ and when there was room to stretch out and take our time telling a story without an editor telling us to get on with it because readers get bored after sixty seconds [or is it less?] and won’t tolerate slabs of narrative or description.
More on this question in my next rant – oops, I mean my next post.
I had 50,000 words of draft 4 of my novel-in-progress and all had been running smoothly; heavens, I was even writing in Paris! Okay, not in an attic, still you get the picture and then boom. The plot became bogged, main character motivations became muddied, key turning points were arriving too early or too late in the narrative and the whole boat was listing badly, if not actually taking in water and sinking.
What had gone wrong?
I had been rattling along and feeling pretty good about my writing and thinking hmm, I should have draft 4 finished and ready to send to the assessor by the end of this year. By late yesterday I knew that it was not working: the narrative arc stalled exactly as I had read about and been warned about in writing workshops.
We have all read novels which start with a bang – original, tightly paced, sympathetic characters, interesting location and all the rest – and then it loses momentum, becomes flaccid, drifts, labours to make points and seems stale. Then we hit Act 3 and we pick up steam and sail into port (to muddle a few metaphors).
What to do? Back to the assessor’s comments to see what I had forgotten in the excitement of being in my own little world of writing every day and then, painfully, back to read the manuscript from page 1 to see where it had stalled. I was horrified to discover how much I had ‘forgotten’ of the detailed assessment discussions and reports and was able after a couple of hours of close reading of my manuscript to see where it had fallen flat. More sighs and then major surgery: deleting chunks of ‘fine writing’ which slowed the narrative and added nothing and bringing forward 1 turning point and delaying another.
Time will tell if the problem is solved. I comfort myself that at least I could tell when the words were dying as they fell from my pen.
Back to work with a lighter heart ….