Storytelling games such as computer and pen-and-paper role playing games (RPGs) rely on a story structure that funnels the characters along a single line of action. The characters must go to this inn, must speak to this barkeep, and must slay this dragon before the action can progress any farther. This tendency is occasionally disparagingly known as the “plot wagon”, or a means to get the characters from one plot point to another without diverging or chasing rabbit trails along the way. It makes for streamlined storytelling, but can seem very contrived if not handled correctly.
Nanowrimo is more than half-way gone! Your novel has more than half of its total word count on the page. By now, the burst of energy that carried you through the sprint from the starting line has faded into a long, grueling marathon. Fear not, the second wind is coming. Soldier on! Write as if you mean it! Before you realize what’s happening, you’ll be in love with your story again and your characters will be springing from your fingertips onto the printed page. Pep talk’s over. It’s been a long weekend here, and it’s not over yet!nano
By now some sharp-eyed reader has checked in on the blog and noticed a day is missing. “Hey,” this reader is saying, “Where’s my daily dose of writing insights? Where’s my daily encouragement during Nanowrimo? Where’s my cheese sandwich?” Through the magic of blogging I could engage in time manipulation, go back to yesterday and insert the post into the matrix as if nothing happened. But that’s not reality. Reality is that things don’t always go as planned, and no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.
Internal conflict within the plot comes from diametrically opposing forces influencing a character’s choices. These forces are: what the character desires to do, what others desire the character to do, what is morally right to do, and the action ultimately taken. In a perfect, conflict-free world all of these choices would be identical and characters would make the right choices every time. This might lead to a harmonious world, but it makes for pretty poor drama. Drama results from the effort to bring these forces into alignment.
Conflict drives the action in your story and makes the reader care about your characters, their failures, and their triumphs. Your plot may be thought of as a tree. The characters are trying to reach the top of the tree. Conflict determines which branches they climb on the way to the top. Conflict in a story comes from two sources, internal and external.
Internal conflict originates from within a character. It stems from the decisions he makes and how he feels about his choices. A character’s internal conflict drives him to choose one course of action over another. Internal conflict causes a character to choose different branches of the plot tree based on how he feels about following that course. Branches may be chosen because they look more stable and attractive, or because of the view they offer of the landscape. Internal conflict causes characters to climb the plot tree while focusing on themselves, how choices will affect them personally, and what things seem more attractive at any given time. This character is less concerned with getting to the top of the tree than with carefully choosing his own path.
If you’re doing the Nanowrimo thing, you ought to be about a third of the way through your novel writing journey. This is a good chance to take stock of your progress, see how far you’ve come and how far you’ve yet to go. Writing a novel is about more than just work count, even in Nanowrimo. This is the right to time to check your course and perform a correction if need be.
Word count is the first thing the Nanowrimo author should check. The goal is 50,000 words. How far along are you? Have you been keeping pace? I don’t know exactly where I fall in relation to other writers or typists in terms of speed, but I’ll share a few quick personal stats. When I’m writing articles or research papers, essentially anything for which I need to get the facts right the first time, I average about 500-750 words an hour. When I’m writing fiction and I don’t have a clear idea of where I’m going or how to get there I still make about the same speed. When I’m in the zone, when the words are flowing, and when the story is practically telling itself, I can do 1500-2000 words in an hour. Most of the time, I fall right between those extremes at 750-1000 words.
Pacing in a novel involves more than just the frequency of events; novel pacing includes structuring the scenes so that the reader maintains an internal timeline of events corresponding to their place in the story and presentation in the text. Events in a story may occur concurrently or consecutively, but may only be presented consecutively. The reader forms an impression of event sequence based on presentation, and the writer controls this impression through scene breaks and chapter structure.
Stories are told from a point of view. In fiction this is either first-person, third-person, or narrative. The popular Choose Your Own Adventure series used the second-person point of view in their books, but this is a very rare exception. Some novels will use a single POV exclusively; other writers prefer to mix up the POV choice and employ multiple POVs in telling the whole story. All of these choices are valid from a technical and artistic standpoint; the writer who understands how each one affects the reader and limits his other choices will be able to them to best advantage.
A novel is a difficult thing to read directly through from beginning to end. Chapter divisions form an important part of novel construction, one that governs how a reader perceives the story and instructs the reader in the best way to consume it. Effective chapter construction provides the reader with the cue he needs in order to enjoy a story. Chapters must be the right length, contain the right mix of subject matter, and control the pacing of the story. No hard and fast rule governs any one of these aspects, but there are several “best practices” that can make a chapter more or less effective.
If sentences may thought of as the bones of a story, the humble paragraph provides the muscle that gives a story strength and endurance. Artistic strength and endurance come from another source; paragraphs provide the technical construction and govern the approachability of a story. Paragraphs hold the reader’s attention during a scene and lead him to important plot points. Paragraphs provide order for description, and cohesion for exposition.
As far as the reader is concerned, approachability is the single most important factor in your writing. The reader wants your story to be easily understood and digestible in bite-sized chunks; part of this comes from your lexicon, but just as much of it comes from your paragraph construction. Paragraphs visually break up the text on a printed page, causing the reader to take a brief mental break from his reading and process the information just presented.