The Novel (part 3)
It may be a good idea to plan at what point in the story the high points will occur so that the writing remains lively and dramatic. Aim to use them in such a way that they draw the reader inexorably from chapter to chapter. So that at the end of one chapter he/she is left wondering what is going to happen and must read on to satisfy his/her curiosity.
The thriller or mystery writer traditionally relies on ending each chapter on a note of suspense. I think we are all familiar with that device and we also encounter it in television and radio serialised dramas. But in the type of book which cannot be readily categorised as either a thriller or mystery story a little more subtlety may be required. Remember that a chapter deals with an event or a stage in the narrative and comes to a natural end when you have, at least for the moment, written all of what you wish to convey of that aspect of the story. You may well wish to end some chapters on a note of suspense because, at this stage of the narrative, this is a natural development. But do not feel that it is obligatory to adopt such a chapter ending. The story must not appear to lurch clumsily from one contrived melodramatic chapter ending to another.
Some writers, in an effort to catch the reader’s attention, adopt a prescient manner – you know the type of thing I mean: If he had known what the future held he would not have set out on his journey with such a light heart, or (even more dire) statements of the order of: Little did they know that in the spring of 1939 the clouds of war, as yet no larger than a man’s hand, were gathering over the horizon with ominous speed. It can become a very tiresome habit and one best not indulged.
Although novels are usually divided into chapters, some writers prefer not to use numbered chapters. Instead they simply indicate a pause, a change of location or action, by leaving a larger space than usual between paragraphs and/or indicating by one or more asterisks that one phase has been completed. This device can also be used within a chapter.
In essence, the writer’s method of unfolding the story should of itself lead the reader on. The process is continuously aided by changes of tempo, problems posed and resolved, highlights, quieter passages, and so on, as the development dictates. Sometimes this happens almost intuitively so that the writer leads the reader on but may not be sure exactly how he achieved this end. Strive to seize and hold your reader’s attention by paying attention to the appropriate techniques and trusting your own instincts. If you are sufficiently enthralled with your story, your interest and enthusiasm will be conveyed to your readers. If you feel lukewarm about the project and your enthusiasm is patently flagging, perhaps you should, if only temporarily, lay that particular manuscript aside. Most writers acquire through the years a drawer full of stillborn efforts, but in time, some may be resurrected. Don’t give in to despair and don’t give up too readily.
Most novels have, in addition to the main plot, one or two sub-plots. When planning the introduction of sub-plots it might be of help if you visualise your main plot as a tree trunk and your sub-plots as branches springing from the trunk. It is evident that the branches are an integral part of the tree and not artefacts arbitrarily attached as artificial embellishments. A good gardener will shape and prune his tree, taking care that the trunk carries no more branches than it requires and can sustain. He will take care to ensure that the tree is not smothered or strangled by an invasive vine clinging parasitically to its trunk and depriving it of light and air. A “tree” should have an overall aesthetic appearance, so be sure that you maintain its symmetry. In other words do not create a muddle of irrelevant and superfluous sub-plots which obscure rather than enhance your main plot. The number of sub-plots, however relevant, which your novel requires, or, indeed, can support, will depend on the strength of your main plot and the proposed length of your narrative.
There is no doubt that the judicious development of one or more sub-plots can add greatly to the interest of a novel. Next time you read a novel which has been well-written examine this aspect with a view to developing or improving your own skill in interweaving plot and sub-plots.
Two good examples are David Copperfield and Anna Karenina. The main plot in David Copperfield concerns David and his life but Dickens also introduces the Micawbers and their problems, Uriah Heap and his stratagems together with several other sub-plots. Some readers of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina will be more fascinated by Levin and his political and philosophical views than they are by the main plot which concerns the dilemma confronting Anna and Vronsky.
Remember though, everything that happens along the way must carry the story forward. Don’t go haring down too many side-tracks just to contrive action for its own sake.
Preparing the first draft
Avoid overloading your reader with great chunks of information. Know what it is essential to convey but let the emergence of the material be gradual and natural. Don’t introduce too many characters simultaneously; give the reader time to assimilate.
Above all, the information you give should have a purpose: to create atmosphere, to give a better insight into a character, to move the plot forward or whatever is necessary. Remember that the success of a novel owes much to collaboration between writer and reader. Deal with some situations that the reader might have some personal experience of, so that his/her reaction will be yes, that is just how I would feel in that situation.
It may be a traumatic divorce or simply a fierce quarrel between two characters who are emotionally involved with one another; it may be trouble concerning a child; it may be the reaction to illness or a car crash – the options open to you are very wide. At some point the reader must feel that he too has been down that road and either concurs with the characters’ reactions or has his interest captured by the difference in their reaction.
Every novel means something different to each reader. You will find this out by listening to the reactions of those who read your finished book. At times you may be very surprised at how they have interpreted something in your book and may be tempted to object that that was not what you were really saying. Pause and reflect before you make such an assertion. Sometimes the writer is not fully aware of the whole of what he/she is saying or revealing.
However deep and abstruse some of the things you are expressing may be make sure that at some level there is a ready accessibility. Those readers who are capable of so doing will pick up the subtler nuances; others may choose to see nuances where none were intended, but all readers will, you hope, have found something which has appealed to them and with which they are in sympathy.
The building of tension is a skill in itself. Sometimes a device as simple as shortening the length of your sentences (quickening the pace) can produce an alteration in the tempo of your narration, which aids tension and suspense. Aim for immediacy and let the reader witness the event as it happens. Plant passages of suspense into the story, keep them short; the overall effect will be to maintain a climate of suspense where the story requires that treatment. For example, if a character is contemplating murder one might write:
Derek stood hunched, a knife in his hand.
Or perhaps he is thinking about suicide:
A hosepipe was coiled at his feet. He lifted the severed piece. It was of a length that would stretch comfortably from the exhaust pipe to the interior of his car.
At that point you could, for the moment, leave Derek and switch to what is happening elsewhere and involve another character who is in some sort of relationship with Derek but blissfully unaware of what Derek is up to at the moment.
You will notice that I have used words in that passage which induce a certain sense of unease. The hosepipe was coiled – that suggests a snake and snakes have certain associations in the minds of most of us. I used severed instead of cut – severed suggests heads or limbs. Then I used the word comfortably which is unexpected in such a disturbing episode.
Try writing some sentences or paragraphs that create atmosphere of one kind or another…it is fun! Enjoy!
- Kieran Beville is a former teacher of English (literature and language) and History and lecturer in Biblical Studies (Hermeneutics). He is author of the novel, Bohemian Fire (pen-name Austen K. Blake, Bohemian Books, 2017). In addition he has published fourteen non-fiction books and he recently completed a book of poetry – Songs of Sorrow. He has had a substantial number of articles published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in the UK, USA, Ireland and India. He was a tutor in the Irish History Department in UCC for a couple of years in the 1980s. More recently Kieran served for several years as Professor in the Intercultural Studies Department of Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, where he taught Master classes. He has lectured on Leadership Training Programmes in Eastern Europe (Serbia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova) and Hermeneutics courses in the Middle-East (Amman, Jordan) and India (Kolkata and Assam). He has also spoken at conferences in Ireland, the UK and India (New Delhi and Nagaland). Furthermore, he has co-ordinated youth-work programmes and managed educational programmes for the disadvantaged in Cork and worked in Community Development. Separated with three adult children, Kieran currently lives alone in West Cork but has plans to relocate to Limerick city, his native place, in the near future. He plays guitar and paints, using various mediums – oils, acrylics.