Hi Fellow writers,
Lorraine has kindly sent us some information about writing a novel and has including her own comments. Have a read as it maybe useful for Octobers homework.
When considering the importance of characterisation versus plot in a novel, or the question of which to begin with, writers might observe that there are two distinctly different types of novel: the 'entertainment novel' and the 'serious novel' or 'literary work'.
Until I read "The Plot Thickens" by Monica Wood, in a book called The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, which is a collection of articles by successful writers, I hadn't observed what is obvious when pointed out.
Entertainment novels have strongly developed (and very predictable) plots, and less well developed characters. Serious novels and literary works focus less on plot and more on character development.
Is there more merit to writing a 'serious' novel? Some would say so, but entertainment novels entertain readers, sell, make money for writers, and satisfy our desire for self-expression. Those are all noble goals.
So what types of novels are 'entertainment' novels?
"Entertainment plots are largely determined by the conventions of the genre", says Monica Wood.
Romances, westerns, crime stories... Stories in which there is a formula that must be followed and regardless of the character's individual traits and unique personality. The plot must move in a specified direction.
The detective must investigate the crime and find the perpetrator (or at least make a valiant effort and head in the right direction). He cannot run off to the Bahamas with the criminal's girl friend!
The Marshall in a western must pursue the bad guys and prevail in the 'shoot 'em up'.
The girl in the romance must win her man. She cannot decide it's all too hard and join a convent.
If you think about it, novels of this type have a very defined structure and plot, and only the details of the telling vary. It's the same story over and over, but told in a trillion different and very individual ways.
In 'entertainment' novels, there is generally minimal character development. Hercule Poirot doesn't change is character from the start of a novel to the end. He only changes the way he perceives things related to the crime. James Bond, Dirk Pitt, or Captain Kirk don't change much either.
Serious novels, or literary works, on the other hand, typically focus on the development of a character. The character faces a crisis - generally a moral or ethical dilemma. The character struggles with this dilemma, gradually exposing more and more of their unique personality and way of thinking to the reader. The character may ultimately resolve the dilemma, or not. It's not about what happens in the story. The focus isn't plot. The focus is on presenting social issues - moral, ethical, religious or political problems - and exposing the manner in which a particular personality respond to these issues. The protagonist often goes through a character transformation - as in A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge reforms from a miser to a generous man; or The African Queen, in which Charlie Allnut reforms from a hopeless drunk to a responsible husband.
But sometimes there is no marked change in the character's behaviour, but only a recognition and acceptance of what is, which, in itself, is a transformation for one who previously could not recognise or accept. (There must be a resolution of some kind, otherwise the story is incomplete.)
Serious dramatic fiction is transformational by nature. The plot isn't just a sequence of happenings. The plot is a planned progression toward the resolution of a predicament, and that progression transforms the character in some way.
Enertainment novels are also typically 'plot line' stories. That is, everything that happens leads directly (and generally fairly obviously and almost inevitably) to the next happening.
Alternately, though, novel can follow a 'story line', in which the events are not causally related, but are part of the same chain of events that are progressing toward a resolution. In a story line novel, the character development is usually greater, because the characters are growing older and also changing as they progress toward a resolution of the central problem presented by the author.
A story line novel is more difficult to write, because the emotions of the characters tend to evaporate over time between events of the plot.
Story line and plot line can be combined in thesae story. Usually the story line comes first, serving as a background to the plot line. Zorba the Greek combines both. Most of the book has a tightly woven plot line, but the last chapter relates Zorba's life of many years after he leaves Crete.
Monica Wood goes on to discuss plotting problems, and says that the most common one occurs when a character refuses to do what author planned for them. This, she says, is a problem that occurs when authors identify too closely with the character. The author plots the story, rather than letting the character dictate the story.
Alternately, the character might lie dead on the page. That occurs when characters are not well orchestrated and pitted in conflict with one another.
Monica Wood offers six tips for successful plotting, prefacing her tips by advising that all good plots result from dramatic characters who are "on fire to obtain goals and who work like hell to achieve them".
1. Chart each major character's development through the actions.
2. In a work of entertainment, chart each major character's actions and indicate his/her motivations, making sure each is being as clever and resourceful as possible. (Agatha Christie's Poirot series would fail if Poirot were a clumsy fool who constantly failed to identify the killer!)
3. Spend some time brainstorming. Make lists of things the character might do. Don't judge the ideas. Allow yourself to be outrageous... even insane. You can prune the list later.
4. Conduct interviews with your characters and write diaries in their voices.
5. Follow the "Would he really?" test for believability.
6. Make sure your characters are well orchestrated. Pair them up with people who contrast markedly with them and create logical, believable conflict. (Monica refers to the TV series Leave it to Beaver, pointing out that Mr and Mrs Cleaver are so alike in their values,opinions, hopes, and ambitions that there would be no story at all if sociopath Eddie Haskell didn't rescue the series from total boredom. She also points out that The African Queen worked because of the marked contrast between the drunken sot ad the straight-laced, bible thumping Rose. A less dramatic contrast, or a combination of two drunks in the boat, would have failed dismally.)
Stories must have conflict, and conflict is created by well-orchestrated characters.
A comment from Lorraine: "Conducting an interview with your character" might be a useful exercise for FWG at some time. This might actually be an interesting approach to the novel group meetings - since we have struggled to find a suitable meeting format for dealing with longer works. Maybe we could set some exercises that assist novel development, like:
Interview your main characters
Write a series of diary entries in your main characters' voices
Contrast at least two of your characters and describe how the contrast in their personality, goals, ideals, opinions, etc. creates a conflict that your story will resolve.
Define the conflict on which your story focuses, and outline how each of the main characters responds to that conflict, and their role in its resolution
Draw a time line of story events and describe the changes in your character at each critical point, showing the progression towards conflict resolution.
I have been struggling with the thought that critiquing individual sections of a book, in isolation, might result in 20 or 30 great extracts, but these don't necessarily combine to make a successful novel. Working on the overall characterisation and conflict might be helpful to ensure that all those well-written extracts ultimately combine successfully.
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