You’re writing fiction. Sooner or later, during your first draft, you’ll realize “this isn’t the book that’s in my head. WHY can’t I write what I can see and feel so clearly in my imagination?”
Although you’re tempted to stop writing because you’re convinced you’re writing garbage — keep writing.
Chances are that you’ll hit this painful psychological wall with every novel you write. It’s not you, it’s the process of writing fiction.
When you know that the wall exists, you can use strategies to conquer it. Tuck the three strategies we discuss into your toolkit. They’ll help you to vault over every wall.
Before we look at the strategies, let’s look at the difference between story and plot, so that you don’t confuse them.
Writing fiction: start with the story (not the plot)
There’s a difference between story and plot, so always start with story — don’t try to plot until you’ve got the story straight in your mind.
You may be wondering: what’s the difference between plot and story?
It’s a challenging concept and you can’t beat E. M. Forster’s famous quote. From ‘Aspects of E. M. Forster’s ‘Aspects of the Novel’:
… ‘The King died, and then the Queen died’ is a story; ‘the King died and then the Queen died of grief’ is a plot, (this) is based in the idea that plot is controlled by causality.
(E.M. Forster wrote the classic novel A Passage To India; it’s held to be one of the best works of 20th century English fiction.)
I’m sure you’re thinking… ‘well, OK. I get story and plot… Sort of. But how do I apply story/ plot to my writing process?’
Here’s how. Story is what happens. Plot on the other hand, is cause and effect. Unlike real life, in fiction there are always reasons for actions and events; it’s your job as an author to identify them.
- Use “why” — CAUSALITY — when you’re plotting. Nothing in your novel happens by chance. There’s a reason for everything that happens;
- In addition, remember SUSPENSE, so your readers will keep reading.
Now let’s look at our strategies.
1. Remember suspense: aim to intrigue readers (keep readers wondering)
Another E.M Forster quote:
“Scheherazade avoided her fate because she knew how to wield the weapon of suspense – the only literary tool that has any effect upon tyrants and savages.”
SUSPENSE is the only literary tool which has any effect on readers too. Keep your readers wondering, always. Avoid info dumps: as soon as you spot them (they’ll proliferate in your first draft), move them to another file, out of your draft.
Here’s what I do. When I’m writing my first draft (in Scrivener), I keep several folders in the Research section:
I clip all my info dumps to one of those folders to get them out of the draft.
What’s an info dump? It’s telling, as opposed to showing; it’s also explanations. As the saying goes, never complain, never explain — it’s good advice when you’re writing fiction.
2. Start macro: build your novel from story to plot
The specific elements of your novel depend on the genre in which you’re writing. When you’re starting a novel, brainstorm what you need. That is, what readers expect from a novel in your genre.
- Romance readers expect a Happily Ever After (HEA), a heroine with whom they can empathize, a hero with whom they could fall in love etc…
- Mystery readers expect a mystery (of course), a crime, intriguing characters, a sense of place…
In your first draft, you’re telling yourself the story. You’re thinking about your characters’ goals and motivations. At this early stage, don’t worry too much about causality — you can nail that down in your next draft.
3. (After your first draft) up the ante: identify your “Minties moments” scenes and polish them
You’ve written your first draft. Now it’s time to nail down your characters’ motivations: why they do what they do.
It’s also time to identify your BIG scenes. These big scenes are the turning points in your novel. You’ll usually only have three (maybe four) “big” scenes. I think of these scenes as my “Minties moments” scenes. They’re the scenes in which the you-know-what hits the proverbial fan.
If you’re wondering what “Minties” might be, they’re a popular Australian sweet. Minties’ advertising came up with this catchphrase almost a century ago: it’s moments like these you need Minties…
Here’s an example of a Minties moments ad:
A Minties moment is trouble.
In your Minties moments’ scenes, things go badly wrong for your characters. Just when your characters are thinking, “oh well, things can’t get any worse,” they get worse.
It’s vital that you make the most of your Minties moments’ scenes: they’re the scenes readers will remember. (You hope.) So spend time on these scenes — and on the scenes which lead up to them.
These three strategies help you to make your fiction writing process easier (and more powerful)
Tuck these three strategies into your novelist’s toolkit:
- Remember suspense — keep readers wondering;
- Story first, then plot; and
- Highlight your big “Minties moments” scenes.
Happy writing. 🙂
Copywriter and marketing pro Angela Booth maintains a busy copywriting and ghostwriting practice. Fascinated by online marketing, she wrote one of the first business books for internet marketing, published by Allen & Unwin. She’s been an enthusiastic blogger since the late 1990s.