Today I got out a rag and cleaned off my white board. The wide open surface and blissfully erasable markers make it the perfect tool for me to see my story as one big picture. Once I have it there, I can see where the action falls and whether events should come sooner or later. Where it might be dragging or maybe overwhelming the reader with information.
It’s an interesting exercise, but it can also be a confusing one. Everyone agrees that stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But the theories on just how these should play out are endless and often contradictory. People write whole books on the subject, make their living teaching seminars about it, and create graphs detailing just how and when tension should rise or fall.
The truth is that each book is different and plot often can’t be distilled down to an x and y axis. But it’s still important that we ask ourselves: How do we keep the tension going in a story? How do we hook the reader over and over so that they keep reading? How do we divvy out information? How do we reveal secrets? Which scenes do we show and which do we skip over?
Pacing and tension are some of the most challenging things to do in a book and though editors might be able to help you shore up your story structure, you’ll never get that help if an editor isn’t interested enough to read your book in the first place. So I keep some personal rules in mind.
- If I’m bored writing a scene, then people will be bored reading it. Sometimes we write scenes purely to maneuver our character into the situation we want them to be in. But this is always a mistake. That sort of scene does nothing to advance the plot. In addition, it often forces our character to behave in ways that don’t feel natural.
- The problem can be the solution. Problem: The scene is boring. Answer: Make the character bored. They will get restless and automatically get themselves into trouble. Which, ultimately, is right where you want them.
- Let your characters lead and shape your story. I tend to write plot heavy books, but even so, this is a crucial rule. If you create three-dimensional, interesting, and believable characters, then, like volatile chemicals, they will mix together in ways you never could have imagined. Trust them to move the story in unexpected directions. They will find their own way through your plot.
- And lastly, be mean to your character. The best way to make your story interesting is to make your character take risks and suffer. This can be hard because we grow to love our characters, even the villains. Not to mention that they are often aspects of ourselves. But despite this, we must push them to their breaking points. Only then can they be truly triumphant.
Graphs and theories can be infinitely helpful tools when it comes to creating novels. But the key is to listen to your story and trust that it will find its own way through. Beginning. Middle. And End.