Writers Talk About Writing
Writing Method: Charting Your Novel
A few weeks ago we spoke to novelist Laurel Dewey about her approach to creating the lead character of her acclaimed suspense novel, Protector. That interview got us thinking about the bigger picture: How did Laurel develop her can't-put-it-down, page-turning story? We discovered that Laurel trained as a screenwriter -- and had applied techniques for writing for the silver screen to writing her novel. We asked Laurel to tell us about that, and she graciously shared this detailed -- and invaluable -- conversation with us:
VT: How does screenwriting relate to writing a novel?
Laurel: When I studied screenwriting at the California State University at Northridge, I had incredible professors who wrote Hollywood movies and television docudramas from the 1950's to 1960's. Back then screenwriters were schooled in the narrative of great fiction writing. They had a real understanding of how to tell a story. It was a different reference point than most of today's screenwriters, who are schooled in the conventions of television.
I never in my wildest dreams thought I'd be writing novels. My goal was to be a screenwriter. But I've been able to successfully put to work the screenwriting techniques my great professors taught me to writing novels. To explain them, though, I'm going to have to use the dreaded "F" word.
VT: The "F" word?
Laurel: Yes, "Formula." Formula definitely plays into what I'm going to talk about. But this formula works. It might sound like "writing by the numbers" but it's not. It's about "charting a novel" to help the writer make sure the story keeps moving and the reader stays interested.
This is not cookie cutter. In essence, it becomes the vessel into which you pour your creativity. It becomes the framework for your story. People often say they read novels that just keep going on and on and on, there's no point. Well using this technique, which I adapted from screenwriting, you can avoid that.
VT: How does it work?
Laurel: Just like with a screenplay, you break your book down into Act One, Act Two, and Act Three. This creates clear sections for containing the character development and the story arc.
VT: Sounds like you're creating a system to organize your story.
Laurel: Look at any really good classic story, whether it's a novel, a theatre play or a screenplay, and you will see this system in place. Writers who understand how to tell a story might unconsciously utilize the formula. Writers who are struggling with organizing the story peaks and so on can avoid all that by adapting this system to their novel.
When you read a novel that just goes on and on and on and on, then there's no, what I call, "spike points." My approach solves this.
First of all, you have to break Act One, Act Two, and Act Three into percentages. The rule I came up with is 25/55/20. That means, 25% of the story is Act One, 55% of your book is Act Two, and the final 20 % is Act Three. This may be a little off here and there - it's not an exact formula -- but I've found the "25/55/20 rule" really helps me create a strong box to hold my story.
If you use a 400-page manuscript as an example, applying the 25/55/20 rule would mean 100 pages for Act One. One hundred pages is your "magic number," by the way.
VT: Magic number?
Laurel: The first 100 pages are critical since most publishers judge a book on those pages. If you don't grab them within those first 100 pages, they are not going to want to read the rest of the book.
In a 400-page manuscript, Act Two would be 220 pages, and Act Three would come to about 80 pages. I have found that this approach really does work. If your novel's Act Three is around 80 to 90 pages long, you can really kick it into gear and get the reader going, "yeah, yeah" -- and take them on a ride to the end of the book.
There's wiggle room here, give or take 10 or 15 pages either side, but you don't want to go past these marks because it really does make a difference in how people are going to react to your book.
VT: What's next?
Laurel: Okay, Act One must establish your story. You MUST have a person with a problem. That's Number One. I learned this from screenwriting. If you don't have a character with a problem to solve you don't have a story. You establish the main character or the characters in the first ten pages if possible. Look at books that you really like and you'll see that they do this. They establish the main character and they establish that character's problems. It may not be the main problem of the book, it may not be the main focus of the book, but you've got to introduce what that character is trying to solve.
As for the protagonist's central problem, you have to establish that or at least introduce the problem in some way in the first 25 pages of the manuscript. If you're not introducing what this book's about in the first 25 pages, why are you writing it? And whatever this problem is, it HAS to be resolved by the end of the story.
You should outline your story so the main character must have either other characters and/or situations -- preferably both -- that complicate solving their problem. Without the hills to climb, your story will be flat and pointless. Challenges create intrigue and demonstrate the cleverness and/or determination of the protagonist.
Act One establishes the main character, their problem, and creates the obstacles. It lays the groundwork for the entire book. You have to end Act One with a springboard into Act Two because you need to catapult the reader from the section that establishes your story into the meat of the book. The meat is Act Two.
VT: What's the springboard?
Laurel: The springboard is not the major obstacle but a "wow moment" -- a twist or complication or something that propels the main character and the reader into solving the issue at hand. This brings you into Act Two, the core of your story, where everything important takes place. Act Two is where you delve deeper into the main character, creating obstacle after obstacle for them to overcome. You peel away the proverbial onion layer by layer until you hit the center, which is the "sting" or the end of Act Two. You start Act Two at around 40 mph, but you want to end it at 70 mph.
VT: Can you explain "the sting?"
Laurel: It's the "Oh My God moment." It's the guy hanging, literally, off a cliff. It's the character in jeopardy. It's the make or break moment that carries you into Act Three -- and that Act starts at 70 mph. You MUST keep that momentum going. You want to keep those pages turning and turning because what happens -- as we all know from novels we've read -- is the story often falls apart in the last 80 pages. How many times have you heard this: "I loved the book but the writer didn't know how to end it." Well, that's because the book was poorly conceived and poorly outlined. But if you chart your novel, this won't happen -- and it won't take away from your creativity. You still have to write creatively. You still have to know what you're doing as a writer.
VT: It boils down to a good story in the end.
Laurel: Right. Charting your novel works and what's great about it is that once you have this vessel, as I like to call it, then you have the freedom to create. You pour your structured creativity into that vessel.