Bill's Blog

Novel Writing – How Hard Can It Be?

Oct 18, 2010

That’s what I was thinking as I sat down at my Smith Corona portable typewriter back in 1979 and started writing my first novel. I had, after all, gained a lot of experience reading novels – everything from James Clavell to John Steinbeck, from Daphne DuMaurier to Willa Cather, from Isaac Asimov to Ursula K. Le Guin, from . . . well, you get the idea. I’ve always read a wide variety of novels.

Now I was ready to write my own. I had a great idea for a story, and I even had some vague notions about the characters. So I typed Chapter One at the top of the page and started writing.

My confidence began to wane by page three, but I blundered along that murky path for several days before admitting defeat somewhere around page fifty.

I guess that wasn’t such a great story idea, after all, I told myself. Undaunted, I spent the next hour or so dreaming up another story idea, rolled a new sheet of paper into the Smith Corona, and started my second novel. This one sputtered to a stop around page twenty. Amateur though I was, it was clear to me that the plot and the characters weren’t cooperating with one another.

Frustrated, I moved from my desk to the La-Z-Boy recliner, where I always did my serious thinking and daydreaming. My eyes wandered along the rows of books lining the bookcase on the far wall. I imagined that they were mocking me. Not as easy as you thought it would be, is it?

My eyes settled on Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, one of the most prolific and successful science fiction writers of all time. I had read the novel many years earlier and still remembered it well. Heinlein had a gift for inventing memorable characters and developing story lines that captured the reader’s attention and held it all the way to the end. Of course, that’s what most successful novelists do. They let the reader get to know the main characters, they engage the reader in the emerging story, and they build a strong sense of anticipation that keeps the reader turning pages.

But how, exactly, do they accomplish that?

The question nagged me as I sat there looking at all those books. What did those successful novelists know about storytelling that I didn’t know?

I decided to find out. I got up and plucked Stranger in a Strange Land off the bookcase and spent the next few days reading it with an analytical mind. I gained some insights into the various techniques Heinlein had used to grab and hold the reader’s interest, but I wanted more. I decided to read it yet again, only this time I wanted to put the story under a microscope by breaking it down into a scene-by-scene outline.

To make sure we’re on the same page, let me clarify what I mean by scene. A scene in a novel is not the same thing as a chapter. A chapter can have several scenes, and in some cases a scene can encompass more than one chapter. Think of a scene in a novel in the same way as you would think of a scene in a movie or a television show. It’s a period of time in which some specific action or event takes place. When the story shifts to a different time period and/or locale, that means a new scene has opened.

I felt that the best way to analyze Stranger in a Strange Land would be to break it down into its smallest pieces – scenes. I worked up a template with the following section headings:

  • Summary – a brief (one paragraph) summary of what happens in the scene.
  • Plot Movement – how the scene contributes to the forward movement of the plot.
  • Characters – a list of characters who appear in the scene, and notes about why they are important to the scene.
  • Viewpoint – the name of the viewpoint character for the scene. Why did the author use this character for the viewpoint role in this scene?
  • Setting – where the scene takes place. Why did the author choose this setting?
  • Background Events Revealed – a list of background events that are revealed in the scene. Why are they important to the story?

I was excited by the time I finished the scene-by-scene breakdown for Stranger in a Strange Land. I had, indeed, gained some valuable insights into the techniques that Robert Heinlein had used to so firmly capture my interest in the story and the characters. What’s more, these techniques were virtually transparent to the reader. Only when I took the time to thoroughly analyze the story on a scene-by-scene basis did I become aware of Heinlein’s subtle use of foreshadowing to build a sense of anticipation in the reader, how he smoothly informed the reader about background events (events leading up to the story) without slowing the pace of the story, how he allowed the reader to get to know the characters through their dialogue, actions, thoughts, and reactions to one another.

I spent the next several weeks conducting scene-by-scene analyses of six more novels by various authors. I found many common writing techniques that weren’t at all obvious from a mere reading of the novels. Then, armed with my new knowledge about novel-writing, as well as a new feeling of confidence, I sat down and developed a scene-by-scene outline for the novel I wanted to write. Then I wrote it – all the way through to the end.

I’m convinced that analyzing published novels was critical to getting my writing career off the ground. I’ve seen it work for many other writers, too, and I now include a published novel analysis as part of my Fundamentals of Novel Writing Workshop. If you think it may help you, here’s how to do it:

  1. Select a novel you’ve already read. If you don’t remember the story that well, read it again before you begin your analysis. This is important. If you aren’t familiar with the story, you’re likely to get caught up in it and wonder what’s going to happen next. If you’re already familiar with the story, you’ll be able to focus on writing techniques used by the author. You’ll already know the roles played by the characters, so you’ll see how the author developed those characters in the early scenes to fit their roles. If you know about important turning points in the story, you’ll recognize the foreshadowing of those turning points as they emerge.
  2. Make sure the novel you select is contemporary and represents the kind of writing you want to do. If you want to write mystery novels, select a mystery novel by one of your favorite contemporary authors. The “contemporary” part is important. Publishers will be interested in well-written novels of the type that are being read today, not novels that were popular fifty years ago.
  3. Set up a template with the elements I described above (Summary, Plot Movement, Characters, etc.) which you’ll use as you analyze each scene from the novel. Novels typically have 50 to 100 scenes, so when you’ve finished your analysis, you will have filled out the template form for 50 to 100 scenes.
  4. After you’ve completed your first scene-by-scene analysis, review it, put it aside, and pick out another novel for analysis.

You may be thinking, Damn, this sounds like a lot of work! You’re right. If you’re allergic to work, then novel-writing probably isn’t for you.

I no longer have the scene-by-scene analysis that I prepared for Stranger in a Strange Land and those other novels. (I did this work on my rattly old Smith Corona. Lucky you, you’ve got a computer that will make the task so much easier.) But I’ve got one for my novel The Tartarus Incident, and I use it as an example for students in my Fundamentals of Novel Writing online workshop. If you would like to see it, let me know and I’ll be glad to send it to you.

Questions about this topic? Call me at (505) 401-1021 or send me an email at william@wgreenleaf.com. I’m in my office most weekdays from 9 to 5.

For a limited time, submit your manuscript for a free edit review!