Editor’s Note: this is a very-lightly edited repost of an article originally posted in 2012.
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), where people around the world try to write a novel in one month, is going to start in a few days. Here’s some ideas that Screenwriters (both film and TV) use. They have to write within very tight constraints, and therefore have refined storycraft in awesome ways. So here are a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up from my studies of (and attempts at) screenwriting that also work incredibly well for novel writing.
Decide how long your novel is going to be (word count) and when you’ll have the first draft completed. Most NaNoWriMo participants set this at 50k words, which is a short novel, but a lot for one month. Decide what’s the longest each chapter can be within that. Decide what genre it will fit into (or which it will cross-over between). Learn the rules of that genre, and do your research to make sure you really know the rules! Finally, learn the rules of good writing (read the rest of this), and stick to them. You are not the exception. Good writing, is good writing, is good writing. If you want people to read it, you have to know the rules inside and out, and practice them over and over and over. Then, once you’ve published a dozen books that obey the rules, you can pull a James Joyce and try breaking them in very purposeful ways. Creativity thrives within limitations and rules, not without them.
Outline Your Story
Outline your plot before you begin! If you don’t know where you’re going, how are you going to get there? It also provides a guide to you as you write to make sure your pacing is correct and that you don’t include needless ideas and events. Your story should be one continuous crescendo to the climax, followed by a relief (the the resolution or denouement). Then break your book into scenes. Just like a movie. Construct each scene to have it’s own climax and relief, making sure the relief is less and smaller than the climax, so that the overall tension continues to increase till the final climax.
Make sure your outline includes all of this, though you can begin writing with blank spaces in your outline that you’ll fill as you write and get a clearer idea of what should go where. Just be sure of what needs to happen to follow this structure. For another way of looking at it see “How to Structure a Novel’s Plot” by my brother and editor of this post, Travis Washburn.
Become Intimately Familiar With Your Characters
Characters will always seem flat and unpredictable if you, yourself don’t know who they are as you write them. A great way to create characters is to outline them somewhere. Give each major character (and some minor) a background: family, childhood, teen years, etc. Then give them a personality: who do they remind you of in real life? Based on their background what kind of accent do they have? What quirks do they have? Are they stubborn, loud, feisty, or quiet, reserved, and passive? What are their biases?
Most importantly, what are their flaws, weaknesses, and fallacies of thinking, contradictions of living, and paradox’s of action? These make your characters feel real. We’re all imperfect, weak, and walking paradoxes in our beliefs, ways of living, etc. Making your characters the same will make them feel real. Write all this down somewhere. Make a note for each character in Evernote, or use notecards, and give each character their own. Refer back to these frequently as you write about them.
Make Your Protagonist CHANGE
As a part of this, your main character or protagonist, needs to change in some fundamental ways. If the overall story is a happy one, that probably means they’ll overcome some of those weaknesses you outlined, or change their views and actions in some fundamental way. Batman Begins is a great example. Toward the beginning Bruce is ready to take a gun and murder for revenge. By the end of the film, he won’t even purposefully kill the villan responsible for attempting to engineer the collapse of western civilization.
Another good (but not necessary) technique is to make your antagonist very similar to your protagonist, at least at the beginning. Then by contrast (aka a foil), she/he emphasizes the protagonist’s change, by representing what they used to be. Batman Begins is once again a great example.
Keep Your Reader In Mind
The very best screenwriters and film directors always have their audience in mind. Often they pick somebody they know and write/direct the movie just for that person. When your audience is that real to you, you have clarity on how to convey your message and make them laugh, cry, rage, or stress along the way.
Often people use terms like “rising action” and “falling action” to describe the structure of a scene. I feel like this is misleading. Conflict is what creates the rising and falling rhythms of a great story. Adding shooting, jumping from helicopters, etc isn’t the kind of “action” or conflict they’re talking about. But conflict is the key. Yes, two people trying to kill each other is conflict in the “war” sense, but to make it conflict the reader cares about, you need to make sure you’re clear about the reason behind it: why are they trying to kill each other? Is it really worth trying to kill over, or just something your reader will laugh at?
Great screenwriters live by the rule “never put two characters in the same scene that agree with each other.” That’s the definition of conflict. Always put people at odds with each other, at least in some small way. That creates the tension that makes it interesting. Watch some great films, you’ll suddenly notice this is the case.
Avoid Abstractions Like They’re a Zombie Plague
Abstractions are any abstract concept from “food” to “feelings.” What kind of food? What does it taste like? Give me details! What ‘feelings’ are you talking about? The reader needs specific details to understand what’s going on. Otherwise they may imagine something totally different from your concept of food, feelings, or any other abstract concept you use. Plus details draw your audience in. You force them to see, hear, feel, smell, and taste what is going on (more on that in a sec). Often this is referred to as “concrete detail.”
Concrete detail (and sense detail, below) are summed up in the old phrase that most amateurs ignore: “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t tell your reader the character is in pain, and don’t have the character say something completely obvious, telling the reader they’re in pain. Instead have the character show it by wincing, sitting down, trying to stop the bleeding with their hand! Here’s a couple of excellent articles on concrete detail at Copyblogger that go into more detail. You must understand this if you want to write a good (or great) novel.
Include Frequent Sense Detail
The four senses are how we experience the world. When you write concrete details, you should describe the coarse and porous feel of concrete on the pad of your fingers. Tell your audience what concrete dust smells like, how it burns your nose hairs as you inhale and seems to coat your nostrils as you exhale. Talk about how the dust settles on your tongue and reminds you of when you ate chalk dust as a kid, but with more grit and crunch to it. Let them hear how the jackhammer sounds a lot like a helicopter hovering 10 feet over your head, when you’re the one operating it, but feels like it’s smashing your bones together at the joints, squeezing the cartilage out of them. The language you use should make your reader hear, feel, smell, and even taste what’s going on. One renowned novelist (who’s name I can’t remember) said she always included all 5 senses within the first page of each of her novels to pull the reader in, make them feel as if they were there with the characters in that scene.
Force Yourself to Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite
James Michener once said, “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” Unlike the process often portrayed in both film and books, writing is never some stroke of inspiration where you sit down and crank out a novel as fast as your fingers can keep up with your thoughts. It just doesn’t work that way! There may be instances of that, but it’s usually one small part of a scene or a piece of your outline. When it happens, go with it. But overall, your story gets better the more familiar you become with it. Therefore, rewriting is where good and great novels are created.
Some authors even go as far as completely throwing away their first draft and re-writing the entire book from scratch. Only it’s not entirely scratch, the first draft made them intimately familiar with the story, its characters, and structure. Robert Louis Stevenson did this with The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. From my own experience, anything from emails to essays and even short stories are often better when I follow this practice.
Cut the Fat
When you revise and rewrite, “cut the fat.” This means you cut anything and every thing that doesn’t contribute to the overall point of your story. This should be done at a high level (outline) as well as molecular level (make your sentences shorter, more concise). Less is more.
Learn Pixar’s Rules for Great Story
Finally, as you outline, write, and rewrite, it helps to be familiar with the 22 rules of a great storytelling that came out of Pixar. Also check out this awesome visual representation of these points from BuzzFeed, using LEGOs and including more explanation of what each means.
- You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
- You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
- Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
- Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
- Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
- What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
- Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
- Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
- When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
- Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
- Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
- Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
- Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
- Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
- If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
- What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
- No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
- You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
- Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
- Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
- You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
- What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
What is your NaNoWriMo novel about? And what’s it’s genre?