Every story eventually comes to a conclusion, it’s the writer’s job to make sure that conclusion satisfies both the needs of the story and the desires of the reader. The story needs a conclusion that ties up all of the loose plot threads and ensures that every character has been through a complete arc. These technical details are important to the reader, but only at the basic level. The reader knows they are important to the story, but he is much less interested in the fact that the conclusion to every plot point and character arc exists than in how that point is concluded. The reader doesn’t just want a conclusion to the story; the reader wants a satisfying payoff.
As the main story draws to a close, the writer faces the unenviable task of gathering up the loose ends of the plot and character arcs and tieing them neatly together. As your novel draws to a close, the reader wants to feel a sense of completion, like he’s not missing any parts of the story. The writer needs to identify plot hoots and character points, making sure that each of them is resolved. In a perfect novel, the two will work together to form a single inevitable conclusion.
When the reader looks for the hallmarks of a completed novel, he’s not worried so much about having every single detail of every single event. The reader’s imagination will fill in many of the points left out by the writer, creating a sense of involvement and investiture in the story. The reader is concerned about picking up dropped plot and character hooks; the writer should be concerned with identifying those dropped hooks and carefully extracting them.
The writer of a novel must be able to effectively portray a broad range of characters, differentiating between how they speak, how they act, and how they think. Some of these, perhaps most of these, will necessarily be of a type utterly foreign to the natural mindset of the writer. The writer has many tools with which to portray characters; one of the most common and effective involves assuming the role of a central POV character during a scene.
Assuming a POV role allows the writer to get personal with not only the character portrayal and reaction, but also the perception of the scene. Getting into a character’s shoes affords the writer access to his thoughts and the ability to share those thoughts and motivations with the reader. The reader gets to be up close and personal with the character, understanding how the character perceives the world around him and empathizing with the character’s reactions. The writer gets to explore the character’s motivations and discover how those motivations interact with the larger world of the story. This technique both advances the growth of the character during the story and increases the emotional investment of the reader.
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.
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.
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.