"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Monday, January 26, 2009

Structuring Your Novel: Characterization

Our plot ideas come from a multitude of sources and are sparked by many things. Oftentimes, the germ of the idea that sets our plot into motion is forgotten as the idea grows. But whatever gets your plot idea moving, always remember, you characters make your story. Good characterization can even hold together a weak plot.

You should know your characters as well as you do your spouse, your children, your siblings--maybe even better. You may never get to tell the reader everything you know about your characters, but the more you know, the more successful you'll be at creating well-rounded people. And in the course of the writing, many of the small details that you know about a character will be revealed through dialogue, action, and interaction. They might even become major factors in the plot.

Working out an outline will enable you to do this, and a good place to start is by drawing up a character sketch of each person. Ask yourself everything you possibly can about a character. Question yourself about his childhood, family, past, previous romances, experiences, desires, goals, likes, and dislikes. Determine what he would do in certain situations.

Unless the character is schizophrenic, his/her behavior and basic motivation should be consistent throughout the book. People in real life aren't always like this, but generally speaking, you can take someone you know very well and determine exactly what his/her reaction will be to any given situation. You should be able to do this with your characters, too.*


COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL: *From my 1992 RWR article: "The Outline: Your Blueprint for a Structurally Sound Plot."

Friday, January 16, 2009

Structuring Your Novel: Eight Basic Plot Points

Sitting down to write an outline for a novel will throw a lot of writers into a cold sweat. It's simply not something most of us enjoy doing. If you delight in outlining a novel, then (at least to me) you are a rather odd and perhaps rare creature. I like to write by the seat of my pants, but I also know that if I don't have a solid grip on my characters and my plot, I'll end up stranded in Timbuktu.

There are a few basic plot points you can focus on, however, that will make the outline more manageable and keep it exactly what it is intended to be: an outline. The outline is not intended to tell every last detail of your book, or even to introduce every character that will appear in the pages of your novel. As you write, things will change about the story, characters' motivations and personalities might change, new people will walk on stage that you weren't expecting at all and these surprise characters could throw your story into chaos. You might, 200 pages into the book, have an epiphany and see that your story needs to take an entirely new direction. Or maybe it's half written and suddenly comes to a dead stop. You don't know where you're going and, furthermore, you discover that your main character is boring. Something's wrong but you can't put a finger on it. There's a lethargy about it all. It's simply not working.

When these things have happened to me (and they have, numerous times), I've found that I need to go back to the beginning and re-explore my characters. I also need to have a serious exploration of the eight basic plot points. The first point to keep in mind even before you do anything else, is to determine an underlying theme that will drive the characters and the plot:

THEME: Theme is the generalized meaning of a literary work. The theme can be something profound and written so subtly that the reader may not know the writer's point until the end of the book. In modern, mass-market fiction, however, the unifying point of the book can be something quite simple, like good always prevails over evil. Other theme examples might be: the passing of an era or a way of life, the sacrifices of conquering a new frontier, showing that perseverance in the face of adversity can help one achieve his goals.*

The theme is the unifying idea that binds the story together throughout the book from beginning to end. Without this, the plot would wander.*

In my most recent novel, The Last Rodeo, the thread that ran through the entire book was how the main character's decision to retire from the rodeo affected not only his own life and future, but the lives and futures of his entire family as well as the woman he loved and her estranged husband. His decision had far-reaching effects that soon became clear to him, making him question the decision. So this was the theme: your decisions affect everyone around you.

A unifying thread that ran through the book was the highway that had been such a big part of his life as a rodeo cowboy was also a symbol of life's journey. It's a common theme, or thread, and while I didn't start out with this in mind, it became the thread that ran through the lives of all the characters.

Next week: Look for some thoughts on CHARACTERIZATION

COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL: *The two paragraphs on theme came from my article: "The Outline: Your Blueprint for a Structurally Sound Plot" originally published in March-April 1992 Romance Writers Report.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists

Some of you might be interested in Andrew McAleer's new release, "The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists." As a contributor to the book, I can tell you it has some wonderful advice, insights, and suggestions from authors such as Mary Higgins Clark, Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, Suzanne Brockmann, Eloisa James, and Rebecca Brandewyne (just to name a few). Some of the topics covered are: coming up with ideas; knowing what makes a great story; developing dialogue; overcoming writer's block; creating a pitch synopsis; and promoting yourself. It's an entertaining read and loaded with tried and true tips and wisdom from the masters.