Thursday, April 19, 2012

Novel Writing Formula

I was editing a manuscript the other day. I had already been through it once before, and the author had done a good job revising it and making the story smoother.

But there was still something missing.

It got me thinking. What makes a good novel? Is there some magic formula?

I went back to the manuscript and read a few passages over and over. Then a light bulb came on. It wasn't just one thing that the author needed to work on -- it was several things that needed to be used effectively in order for the novel to make sense to the reader.

I believe there are four key items that need to be balanced in order for a novel to work. A sort of "formula" if you will. Test them against your favorite novels and see if you agree. Or test them against the manuscript you are writing to see if you left anything out. Each item below needs to be in balance, or the story will feel off to the reader.

1. Action. You can't have a story without it. The people in the story are doing something, or something is happening to them. We read the story because we want to know what is going to happen next. The action sets the pace and hooks us.

2. Description. We need to know what the scene looks like. We need to know what the characters look like. And then we need to know what the action looks like. An author who can paint a picture with words has the makings for a great novel. If we can picture the story in our minds as if it was playing out like a movie, you've hit gold.

3. Dialogue. This is further down the list, because without great action or description, you can't have great dialogue. You have to know what a character is doing and looks like before the dialogue will even begin to make sense. Dialogue should only include the most important things the characters say -- summarize the rest. Dialogue will bring attention and punch, so use it just in the places you want the move attention and punch.

4. Reflection. Readers need time to unwind. They want to think about what they are reading while they are continuing with the story. The need a minute to breathe. So the characters must reflect. If you are writing a novel, talk about the characters' insights on what is happened. While they are moving to the next adventure, show us their thoughts. How is it changing them?

Once you have each of those in balance, then simply repeat, repeat, repeat.

As it turns out, the manuscript I was editing was strong on action, ok with description, ok with dialogue, and definitely did not have enough reflection. So I complimented her action, offered a few additions to aid in the descriptions, added dialogue where she had previously summarized for some extra attention and punch, and finally I left long comments about how she could reflect.

What do you think is a good formula for writing a novel?

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