Rite of Passage is about the human experience and my reflections concerning such.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Five Key Elements For Writing a Good Novel


When I first embarked upon the grand journey of writing my first novel, I had no idea what I was doing. Today, two years later, I have a pretty good idea. I am exceedingly grateful to all the authors out there who have so graciously shared their knowledge and experience with the rest of us.


There are five key elements which must be incorporated into the writing of a novel. Although there are more elements than these, the five in focus here will enable you to begin work on the tale begging to be told.


Setting

This is the first element you may want to consider as you ponder your great idea. From my own perspective and experience, it’s easiest to describe a setting you are familiar with. By doing so, you are able to draw upon your own unique perspective, both visually and emotionally. Allow all those feelings of nostalgia to shine through, breathing life into the story by transporting the reader to the setting through sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.


If the setting you desire is one you aren’t familiar with, I recommend talking to people who have visited or are from the locale you have in mind. I know one writer, who while on vacation in France, decided she would kill off a character who was taking over the story. She took note of each locale they visited and even had her family on the look out for the right setting. Over dinner in a restaurant one night, her daughter in law, who is very quiet said in a delighted and rather loud voice, “Mom, would this be a good place to kill Eddie?” Needless to say, everyone in the restaurant was more than a little curious about the comment. The waiter approached and cautiously asked if everything was all right, and my friend said, “Everything is great, we’re just planning a murder.” She didn’t choose to kill Eddie there, but it makes for great conversation.


Conflict

What’s a story without conflict? It’s the staple of our lives. Conflict allows us to form our own opinions as we learn and grow through a complex chain of events. We make mistakes and surmount overwhelming odds, and are rewarded with a flood of varying emotions and hopefully a renewed sense of self and vision. A life without conflict is an existence without meaning or purpose. Give your novel a strong purpose and give your characters a strong conflict to resolve. When we read about fictional characters facing fears, plagued with set backs or fighting against the world for what’s right, we feel their pain, relate to the fears and cheer when they’ve obtained their goals. A strong conflict makes for a good night reading a book, and chewing your nails down to nothing as you are drawn into the unfolding drama and wondering how you yourself would respond.


Character


A story would be meaningless without characters for us to relate to. When writing a novel you want your characters to tell the story through their actions and dialogue. When developing your main character, you want this person to be intriguing and unique, yet you want them to seem real in the mind of the reader. Don’t be afraid to give your character flaws either in personality, reasoning or motivation. The conflict of the story could involve the character’s need to rise above those flaws, either for the purpose of gaining something in the material world or for the purpose of gaining self respect. The spectrum of possibility is limitless, and since most people aren’t perfect, the reader will relate to the character’s flaws.


A character is more than the description of his or her physical attributes. Granted, you may have painted the picture of a beautiful red head with hazel eyes and a curvaceous figure, but who and what is she? What are her values? What does she desire? Even though she’s beautiful, why do her eyes focus on the ground beneath her feet? You have a strapping young man who’s embarked upon a journey across America. Why has he sold all his possessions and turned his back from all that he once knew? Why does he keep looking over his shoulder and why does he have those dark, sagging circles under his eyes? These are details the reader wants to know, and although you don’t always have to explain, you can use these underlying reasons to your advantage.


Dialogue


Dialogue and action are the wheels which propels the story forward. Without dialogue you have nothing more than a narrative, a written monotone. You want your readers to keep turning pages, which won’t happen if they’re falling asleep or confused. You can never have too much dialogue, it is in fact the dialogue which will help you to develop the characters and explore the depths of their convictions, emotions and motivations. Through the dialogue you may be able to further develop your plot and conflict, by expressing the inner most emotions, fears or desires of your characters through the ‘spoken’ or rather ‘written’ word of dialogue.


Keep your dialogue as realistic as possible and easy to read and follow. Try not to use dialects or slang except when absolutely necessary. Does your dialogue have a purpose other than filling space? It should reflect the theme of the story and it should be relevant to what’s happening. Good dialogue has a purpose and if it’s well written, it will help the reader move through the story with clear understanding of what is happening.


Action

Observe your surroundings and people. Take note how hey interrelate and how they move. Notice facial expression, body language and ticks. When we think of action, we generally think swash buckling sword fights, dramatic escapes and glorified rescues. Although such would make for good reading, you must also consider how Randy knows Carla is about to blow her top, even when she’s masking her feelings. How does Duke know Earl is holding a full house, and his royal flush is going to insure his bread and butter for the next month? How would Steve climb up the ladder if his recent fall was fresh in his mind? As you can see, there is subtle action and explosive action. Be sure to use and focus on both when appropriate.


There are so many things we take for granted on a day to day basis. We walk out of the grocery store and aren’t aware that we nearly ran an old woman down with our cart. Try to formulate in your mind what her response would have been. How many times have you come home with a few bags of ‘stuff’ and put the contents away without thought, only to have no recollection where you put that one particular item you went to the store for in the first place?


Have you ever noticed how uncomfortable some people are eating in public? How do you know they’re uncomfortable? What does it mean when your dog’s ears are back a little, but not tight against his head? Take note of how Johnny reacts when Terry races to the one empty swing at the park and scoots into it before him. What does he do when she laughs and sticks her tongue out at him? How does Mary react to Tommy when he calls her a zit faced, four eyed, freak? How does your three year old behave when lying as opposed to how your twelve year old behaves when doing the same?


All these elements are vital to the success of your endeavors. Don’t be afraid to explore all the possibilities. Go out and notice your surroundings, notice the people you encounter and listen to what is being said and what isn’t. Try to figure out the drama of their play as they all struggle for position and power against one another, and you’ll find a wealth of ideas to inspire a not only a good novel, but a great novel.

Copyright 2001 Rocky Bellew

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