The Writer’s Toolbox

You’ve probably seen this optical illusion. Most people initially see the image as a vase. But looking at it a different way, it becomes the silhouette of two faces. If you first see it as a vase, you just have to let your mind shift a little to see the faces.

I’m going to ask you to let your mind shift in the way you look at writing a novel. But first you have to endure a short story about me and my dad.

My dad wasn’t a professional carpenter or cabinetmaker, but he still liked to make things out of wood. He had a small shop in the garage, and his woodworking tools were organized by function. In one area were tools for shaping wood: saws, a planer, a lathe, and sanders. Another area held tools for fastening pieces of wood together: hammers, screwdrivers, drills, and clamps. In his measuring area were tape measures, a yardstick, a T-square, and a plumb line. Dad always knew exactly where to find whatever tool he needed for a particular task.

One day while he was at work, I decided that I needed a desk for my bedroom. Naturally, I headed for Dad’s shop to make one. I found a hammer, some nails, and a few pieces of scrap wood. The hammer was hard to handle for a six-year-old, and I was on my third or fourth nail when I whacked my thumb. Thus ended my first woodworking project.

“What were you making?” Dad asked that evening as we stood looking down at the cobbled-together collection of boards.

“A desk,” I told him.

“Okay,” he said. “How about we take another stab at it this weekend?”

On Saturday morning, Dad started the project by sketching out a design for the desk. After a quick trip to the lumber yard, we got to work. That was when I realized why Dad had so many different saws and hammers and screwdrivers—and I learned the importance of using the right tool for the task at hand. When Dad was ready to cut the pieces of wood, he didn’t reach for the big handsaw he used for cutting framing lumber; instead, he selected a saw with a small blade that worked well for precision cutting. When he was ready to assemble the pieces, he didn’t use the hammer that had done such a good job of mashing my thumb; instead, he drilled tiny holes in the wood and used a screwdriver and small brass screws. By Sunday afternoon, I had a new desk complete with two drawers.

Now let’s get back to the craft of novel writing.

Like any craft, novel writing requires the right tools, and it requires a writer who knows how to use them. I’m not talking about things like pens, paper, typewriters, and personal computers. The mechanical task of recording words on paper or in digital files is the easy part. I’m talking about things like plot, characterization, dialogue, viewpoint, and physical setting. We usually see these elements as components of a book. “Characterization in the novel is strong,” we might say. Or: “The physical setting of eighteenth century Philadelphia feels authentic.” Or: “The historical background events leading up to the riots add fascinating texture to the story.” These are the kinds of comments a reader or book reviewer might make about a novel.

This is where I want you to let your mind shift a little.

As a reader, you can appreciate the creative use of background events, physical setting, and characterization as elements in a well-crafted novel. But as a writer, you must see them in a different way. You must see them as tools of your trade.

Why am I making this distinction? Because I read and evaluate a lot of manuscripts written by authors who don’t take full advantage of these tools. For example:

  • Suspense novels that move too slowly. Readers of suspense novels don’t want to get bogged down with unnecessary details. Narrative pace is an important tool for authors of suspense fiction.
  • Fantasy novels that don’t give the reader a vivid look at the surroundings. Readers of fantasy novels want to see the castle, the dungeon, and the eerie forest, so physical setting is an important tool for authors of fantasy novels.
  • Romance novels with shallow main characters. Readers of romance novels want to know the main characters intimately. That’s where the story is, and anyone writing romance novels would do well to employ such tools as characterization and dialogue.
  • Horror novels that lack suspense. The writer of successful horror novels uses tools like narrative pace, character interaction, and viewpoint to build up a strong sense of anticipation in the reader.

Sometimes authors don’t take the time to think about how they can craft their novels in a way that will appeal to their readers. They don’t consider how to use the right tools for the task at hand. They just start writing and hope for the best.

There are lots of tools in the writer’s toolbox. The most important are plot, characterization, viewpoint, background events, dialogue, physical setting, scene development, and narrative pace. These are tools to be picked up and used as you write your novel. If you use them wisely, your readers will be pleased and tantalized. If you don’t, you’re likely to end up with a cobbled-together mess.

Next week: One of your most important tools—dialogue.