Constructing a Novel – The Story Part 1

Constructing the story

Novels are not born; they are constructed — a bit like an engineering project.

BME Story Arc

No one is born knowing how to write novels; the same as no one is born knowing how to read or write, these are skills we need to learn.

Writing a novel is a learning process. You may be better at telling stories than some other people, or better at grammar, have a larger vocabulary, be better at editing, be willing to sit at a keyboard for extended periods etc, but it is unlikely you will be good at all the skills needed to write a novel at the start of the process.

There is no guarantee of success (otherwise every book would be a best seller). Surprisingly, there is also no right way to ‘do it’. A novel is a stylised way of telling a story. Yes, there are conventions you need to follow (more in some genres than others), but ultimately you need to discover for yourself what works for you.

People naturally relate to different types of stories told in different ways. In the written form, certain story structures have been found to be more successful and satisfying than others – one of these is the ‘Novel’. When a reader picks up a novel, they do so with certain expectations of how the story will be structured and how the different characters will behave. A novel is a story-telling device that is more than plot-twist-ahead-signjust an extended story.

The author may bend or twist all these conventions to create something unique and  unexpected, but they will also need to respect those conventions if they want people to read their novel.

If you are a ‘Plotter’, a writer who likes to plot your story out in detail before you start (like me), you will need to consider all the Story Arcs, Plot Points, Story Beats, Reveals, and Sub Plots before you start writing your story, so you know where you are going. If, on the other hand, you are a ‘Panster’, someone who likes to just sit down and let the story unfold before you – writing ‘by the seat of your pants’ – you will need to construct everything retrospectively after the first draft is completed, to see if you have missed any important elements. Whichever type of writer you are, the more adept you become, the more natural these technical process will become, until perhaps they are instinctive – a bit like learning to drive.

The development of your story will depend on a number of factors:

  • Plot: To developing an engaging plot (I think this is the hardest, but also most interesting, part of novel writing), you need to layer a number of technical story development tools on top of one another. Basically, to develop a good plot, you need to understand what makes a good story.
  • Theme: This is the big, underlying, question you are addressing in the story. It might be a big issue (life and death, or equality, etc) or a simple question (What happens if…?), or something about your protagonist (Can X grow up disgracefully?). If you can have a theme for your novel that is somehow resolved by the end, your story will be more satisfying.
  • Character development: one or more of your protagonist’s character flaws will need to be mitigated by the end of the story. This may or may not have anything to do with the plot.
  • Some authors prefer to develop the plot first, others prefer to develop their characters first, it doesn’t matter which you start with, because the two processes are completely interchangeable. We will deal with character development in the next article in this series, but be aware that the development of your characters is just as important as your plot development, and the two will eventually depend on each other.

Understand the Plot:

The primary function of a fiction writer is to tell a story. At the very minimum, to tell any story, you need a three line plot. This consists of

  • A Premise – what is the story about.
  • Complication(s) – (But) what difficulties do the characters have to overcome and how do they overcome these complications
  • A Climax – How your characters overcome the complications and resolve the story.

Now think about the conflicts you have had in your life and use them as the basis for the complications your protagonist has to overcome to get what they want. Obviously up-the-anti, and exaggerate the hell out of each situation.

How your character(s) overcome the complications of the plot forms the main body of your story. Without complications, objections, and hurdles for your characters to overcome, your story will fall flat, because all stories are about how humans overcome conflict. Stories are so hard-wired into human nature, that even stories we think are about something else are ultimately about humans.

In fact, the more difficult you make it for your characters, the more their personalities will be exposed and the more interesting your story will become. Plotting is really all about storytelling and storytelling is all about conflict.

For instance: a Princess is born, grows up, meets the Prince of her dreams, gets married and lives happily ever after is not a very interesting story (unless you are three years old). A Princess grows up overcoming the eccentricities of her parents, meets the Prince of her dreams who turns out to be a monster, but the Princesses’ pure love helps the Princes overcome his Monstrous traits – Beauty and the Beast – is more interesting. Add that the two families are monstrous and compare that against the forbidden pure love of the prince and princess and you have Romeo and Juliet, turn pure love into obsession and you have Twilight. It’s all about what your characters have to overcome and how they go about it that makes your story interesting.

Keep playing with your three line plot until you have something that grabs you or intrigues you, it’s not easy, but it pays dividends in the end: if the plot grabs you, it will grab your readers too.

Now we need to build the bones of your story, the scaffold from which the scenes will develop: this is a matter of layering multiple writing tools one on top of the other.

novelIsn’t a novel just a series of short stories knitted together?

The basic difference between a short story and a novel, is that the protagonist’s character journey is much longer and more convoluted. There are a lot more obstacles in the way of the protagonist getting what they desire, they may be a single theme, and the protagonist’s character journey is more prominent.

Certainly you can start writing your novel as a series of short stories, but at some stage you will need to bring all your short stories together into a single over-arching story: with one theme, one central story arc, and one central character arc (development/growth).

Understanding Story Arcs

The Story Arc is a technical tool that sits invisibly behind the story to provide the structure and meaning of your story.  There are different types of Story Arc, from the simple three act play (Beginning, Middle, End) to the 22 point arc used by my screen-writing hero John Truby.

The actions and emotional intensity of the story will rise and fall in tune with your story arc, so your story arc will look something like this.

Emotion Arc

For this example, we are using a standard eight-point Story Arc, which is also the one I use for scene construction .  These are your main story points from the start of the story to the end:

Stasis:  The way things are now, particularly the way the Protagonist is now – perhaps lovelorn.

Trigger:  Something happens to kick the story into motion – maybe a new boy arrives at school.

Quest:  This causes the Protagonist to go in search of something – treasure, love or acceptance maybe.

Complication:  The Protagonist meets one or more obstacles on the journey which have to be overcome – perhaps a competitor or a love rival (Personified Antagonist) or a situation that pulls them apart (Situational Antagonist).  In a novel, the complications should become progressively more difficult/intense as the story progresses.  Eventually, the final complication results in an apparent defeat for the protagonist and an apparent victory for the antagonist.  This is where the protagonist suffers their ‘darkest hour’ or lowest emotional mood.

Choice:  The Protagonist has to make difficult decisions to overcome the final complication (Protagonist decides to confronts the Antagonist).

Climax:  The decisions have consequences and the antagonist starts their fight back, which leads to the dramatic highpoint of the action/emotions/story (Protagonist actually confronts the Antagonist).

Reversal:  The most important stage of all in creating a satisfying story and the most often left out – Show what changes the quest, complication(s), choice(s), and action(s) have produced.  These could be physical or in terms of your protagonist’s character – the Protagonist has stood up to the Antagonist and won/lost, but the love interest switches allegiance out of Admiration/compassion.

Resolution:  The way things are now. (Protagonist and love interest are deeply in love) or victory (of whatever description) is gained.

The steps on the Story Arc will encompass the main emotional shape of the story. These are the crucial episodes that must be incorporated to make the story work as a story. These story points are not really negotiable, because they are cultural. The story arc is the bones of the your story, everything else hangs off this basic structure.

Your Story Arc will now look like this:

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Here’s an exercise to help you realise if a story idea will work:  Produce a simple three line plot – Premise, Complication, Climax, then build a simple 7 part story arc around it.  If it doesn’t easily work, move on to the next idea; if it does work, develop it some more.

Story Beats

Sitting on top of the story arc, are what are often called Story Beats. These are additional steps in your story that will define the genre of your story, whether it is a love story, an adventure/quest story, a mystery, detective story, sci-fi, or saga. Many of these story beats are defined by the genre in which you are writing, and are what your readership expect to see.  There is no requirement to include these genre defining Story Beats, but your story will work better within its chosen genre if you do.

The easiest to illustrate is the love story, which must include these story beats: boy meets girl, girl driven away from boy, girl and boy are reconciled, boy driven away from girl, both reconciled, crisis, changed character for one or maybe probably both, final reconciliation or moving on. How many times you repeat these Story Beats for your story is up to you, but without them your story won’t work as a love story.

Some Story Beats will relate to your setting: historic era, Western, Steampunk, Sci-fi, etc. I write Steampunk stories, but many different types of story structure can fit into this genre, because, although treated as a genre for marketing purposes is not a true genre. By this I mean it is not a type of story with its own unique story arc, this is equally true for the Western/Wild West type story. So, anything you particularly want to include or show off about your setting, historical period, or story world, will be included on your Story Arc as a Story Beat.

In addition, some Story Beats may also be Tropes.  These are basically clichés, specific to your genre or story type, or possibly your character(s) that you want to be present in you story without being overtly obvious.  Don’t be afraid of Tropes just because they are clichés – basically they are a type of ‘short hand’ or ‘flag’ that lets the reader know certain things about your story, genre, setting or character.  Learn to tell the difference between using clichés and becoming clichéd: the first is possible story telling tool, the latter is to be avoided at all cost, unless done deliberately for comic value.

You will find that some of your Story Beats will also be basic Plot Points on your Story Arc, that is fine, but there will be others which are unique to your story and need to be placed on your Story Arc so you know where they occur in relation to the rest of the story.

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Story Reveals

In addition to your basic Plot Points and the Story Beats for your genre, there will also be a number Reveals, in your story, at least two or three, but maybe many more depending on the type of story.  Reveals are points in the story where the main character(s) learn something new that causes the plot to twist and turn. Depending on the way you construct your story and the point of view you are using, there may also be an Audience Reveal: this is where the author gives the readers privileged information that the main characters are yet to discover, this can add an element of tension to the story.

Ideally, every Plot Point should have a Reveal attached that helps drive the story in a new direction. To maximise the twists and turns of your story, each Story Beat would also have it’s own Reveal – this might be relevant for a detective novel or ‘who-done-it’ type novel.

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Congratulations, you now have your basic plot, but you are not done yet – there are a few other, optional, plot techniques you might like to include in your novel. We will cover these in the next article. We will also look at how to start pulling together all the different elements that make up your plot, so you can start writing the story.

Image credits:

Begining, Middle, End:

Plot Twist Ahead: Desmond Dunker/

Paper-People Chain:

A Dystopian steampunk Author

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