Novel Basics

From Writer Unboxed: 6 Novel Basics You May be Overlooking

Six basics? Okay, what are these basics?

  1. Set the scene.

Nothing is more disorienting to a reader than not knowing where the action is taking place, when it is taking place, and whose perspective is delivering the story.

I agree. Setting is absolutely crucial in the first scene. Note that “perspective” is treated here as part of setting the scene. I agree with that as well. That’s part of what I think of as putting the protagonist in the scene and in the world.

  1. Give your protagonist (or other POV character) a scene goal

While drafting your story, rather than ask, “What will happen to my protagonist next,” ask instead, “What will my protagonist do next?”

This is part of building the character.

Also, this precise question, what will my protagonist do next, strikes me as a good one because it helps prevent passivity. Though I will note that passivity is partly (a lot?) in the perception of the reader. Characters who have been perceived as objectionably passive by at least one reader: Syova, Ryo (yes, really), Kes (Griffin Mage #1), Gereint (Griffin Mage #2), Cassandra from the Touchstone Trilogy (I recently happened across a reviewer who found the trilogy un-re-readable because Cassandra was too passive), and no doubt heaps of other main characters who work fine for other readers. Personally, I found Avery in the Vardeshi novel way, way too passive. I thought she thought she was standing up for herself; I thought the author thought so; but I thought she was so ineffectual that she became passive. Obviously most readers don’t agree. Lots of positive reviews. Nevertheless, that’s one of (several) elements that bothered me in the book.

Having said that, even acknowledging that passivity is partly reader perception, I still think “what will my protagonist do next” is a better way of framing the scene than “what will happen next,” and I do think framing the question that way could help the author avoid their protagonist becoming more passive than they prefer.

  1. Honor your secondary characters

Brett Goldstein, a writer and actor in the Apple+ TV show Ted Lasso, says, “You have to write all of your characters with love, even those who deliver only one line.” 

Well, I wouldn’t go that far. Some walk-on characters are just walk-on characters.

On the other hand, I really do like many of my very minor characters. Taraka inRasiko, whom Tano meets near the end of TANO, do you remember him? The second-eldest son of the lord of the inRasiko? He’s nice to Tano, you may remember. I like him and would like to see him again, and I hope readers feel that way about him too, even though he gets just a few lines. More than one, but not a lot more. Ditto for the warrior Arayo inKera meets in Returning Hokino’s Knife, Senoka inKera, you may remember the one, he’s the man who was friends with Hokino when they were young men, then a rival later. I like him too.

I’m really intrigued by Desya in INVICTUS, but you know what minor character a reader already pointed to? Pieter Langdon, the executive officer. He’s got a really small role, though granted more than one line. This reader was right: he’s interesting. Most of the minor characters are interesting and I wouldn’t mind bringing them back on stage and finding out more about them.

You know what, fine, Ted Lasso was right: You have to write all your characters with love, even those who have only one conversation with an important character.

  1. Position important concepts for resonance

Sometimes writers inadvertently bury key plot points in the middle of lengthy paragraphs. Doing so suggests that the plot point is no big deal. 

I don’t exactly think about this, but this is probably the sort of thing that leads to a series of short paragraphs. Breaking a paragraph does lend impact to the last line of the paragraph; setting a sentence alone in a paragraph lends a lot of impact to that sentence. I don’t know that I’m thinking of key plot points. I’m thinking of lines that ought to have emotional impact, not lines that are important to the plot.

Although! Now that I think of it, sometimes I do break a paragraph for exactly that reason — to emphasize something that I want the reader to notice because it foreshadows something that’s going to happen later. I remember making a decision to break a paragraph for this reason just the other day. So sometimes I do break a paragraph to emphasize something plot related. Huh. I never noticed that until now.

  1. Make room for your reader

Readers love to co-create story.  [Make room for the reader by] writing “around” something that happened without explicit description

I’m not sure about this one. I think it’s something like: don’t be too explicit and put absolutely everything on the page. Or, more briefly, show, don’t tell. I think this is a version of that hoary piece of advice. As advice goes, “show don’t tell” is wildly overstated, but on the other hand, it’s true that you don’t need to hold the reader’s hand and carefully explain every single thing your characters are feeling, thinking, or surmising. I think that is what the linked post is saying: that the reader will understand what you don’t quite put into words as long as that stuff is hovering between the words. Which it is, generally.

Okay, the last “overlooked basic” from the linked post:

  1. Learn the basics of Microsoft Word

I’ve saved this one for last because it’s the least sexy—but that doesn’t mean it’s the least important.

There’s a list of things the author considers “the basics of Word,” of which the least basic by a mile is “how to view invisibles.”

If the author means “how to click on the P button so you can see hard line stops and spaces and whatever,” then yes, that’s basic. (Really, really basic.) If the author of this post means “You can Find “^p space” to find extra spaces at the front of a paragraph,” then this is true and it’s a good thing to know, but it isn’t what I would call basic. You can search for ^p^p to find extra line spaces that you don’t want, by the way. If you put in paragraph indentation with the tab key, you can clear those by Finding a tab-produced space and Replacing that with nothing. Then you can put in the paragraph indentations by hitting Control A to select all, hitting the little downward arrow in the corner of the Paragraph section of the main menu, and selecting First Line Indent.

There’s kind of a lot of bells and whistles in Word, I grant. I love Word because I know about a lot (not all, I’m sure) of the bells and whistles. I’m told you can move whole chapters and sections around in Scriviner, yay! Well, you can move whole chapters and sections around in Word too, and wow was that helpful as I moved everything many, many times in the Tuyo World Companion. You do it by delineating chapters using Styles and then hitting Headings in the Find pane (the Navigation pane). Then you can grab chapter headings in the Navigation pane and move the whole chapter up or down.

Anyway! Whenever someone says, “Oh, formatting a book is hard in Word,” I think, No, it’s really not? Why do you think so? And then I remember Jennifer Stevenson of BVC carefully teaching me how to use Styles to do various things and fine, okay, yes, Word does have a lot of bells and whistles. It’s helpful to have someone lead you through some of the less obvious stuff. I expect learning how to use Scriviner or something would also be okay. BUT, I would just like to go on record as saying that Google Docs does not have anything like the functionality of Word and for heavens sake, do not try to pretend it does. We see so many students using Google Docs and it’s a total pain to try to show them how to format the lit cited section or whatever, all kinds of things that are a piece of cake in Word. If Google Docs has those functions, they are WELL HIDDEN and it drives me up a wall.

Regardless, I don’t think this really belongs in a post about NOVEL basics. Deciding to use Word or something else is NOT part of writing a novel; it’s part of writing period. IMO, this post should have stopped with FIVE novel basics and the popular debate about TOOLS should have been left for another post.

Other than that, good post.

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7 thoughts on “Novel Basics”

  1. I mentioned how much I love and rely on the Word Navigation pane to my writers group last weekend and none of them had ever heard of it. We shared my screen so I could show them and they all were just delighted with how helpful it was. I told them that the first thing I did with all of their manuscripts was go through with find/replace formatting options to turn every Chapter into a Heading format just so I could move around and find things easily. (Also why I give my chapters actual names, not just numbers, so I can tell at a glance what’s happening in chapter 22.)

    I’m starting to think I’m the only person who browses through the menu options every time I get a new program/upgrade, just to see what kinds of things are available, even if I never use them.

  2. Deb, I’m embarrassed at how long it took me to start using the Navigation pane for real. With Silver Circle, for the first time, I’m making the chapter headings all Heading 2 — and adding the pov character’s name to the chapter heading so I can now see at a glance which pov is where and how long it’s been since the last time Natividad (say) had a chapter from her pov. It’s quick and easy to see how long each chapter is by clicking rapidly down the headings in the Navigation pane and it’s also easy to reorder the chapters when I realize the timeline is getting confusing …

    … and basically it’s just a really useful item to know about and your writers’ group is going to love it.

    I haven’t given the chapter headings brief descriptive notes, but as I get further into the story and begin to have trouble keeping track, that’s a good idea and I’ll probably do that.

  3. My chapters get lame kind of names like, “Chapter 9: Weekend Away” or “Chapter 14: Teenagers,” “Chapter 18: Road Trip.” Just enough so I know what scene/plot is happening in that chapter when I glance at the Navigation pane.

    And yes, it’s SO easy to move whole chapters! For my current re-write, I’ve been copying one chapter at a time into an entirely new document so that I’m working in the new stuff in manageable chunks, and it makes selecting for copy/paste so easy.

    Honestly, the only thing I wish was that it was easier to renumber chapters (grin). I really need to poke around some more to find a way to make that more automated. The Table of Contents option, maybe?

    I used to try the Master Document option, where Word combines multiple separate docs (i.e., chapters) in one, but that was too much of a pain. (It’s also one of the reasons I don’t like Scrivener that much, though that’s got some nifty features for plotting.)

  4. I would love to see the couple in Death’s Lady, when they find out they have helped the new Terusai, and if their lives intertwine again with Emelan’s at all. But this is not me ‘co-creating the story’. As a reader, not a writer, that’s my wish- in fact, it’s frustrating not to know what happens to them. I don’t like it at all, and I don’t know what Writer Unboxed is talking about. ‘Co-creating the story.’ Wrong!!!!

  5. This is the sort of thing I write in my head for other people’s novels, Alison.

    Maybe someday we’ll find out what happened to that couple. I liked them too, and I’d be interested.

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