I’ve known lots of folks who started novels (or screenplays, memoirs, or nonfiction book). As you can imagine from my over-arching missions here, not many of them finish. They all had passion, great ideas, and all the necessary skills to write something… Anything. (Frankly, everyone who’s literate has the necessary skills to write something.) So what was missing?
I’m pretty sure you know where I’m going with this….
The difference between starting a novel and finishing a novel is a plan.The difference between starting a novel and finishing a novel is a plan. Click To Tweet
Plotting vs Pantsing
These terms may be new to you, so before we proceed, let’s define these two terms.
Plotting is the act of planning out the plot of your novel. This could be done in a notebook, on flash cards, or via a software like Scrivener. Your plot could be very broad – as in a beginning, a middle and an end – or very granular – down to the chapter or scene. But if you have a plan, you’re a plotter.
Pantsing comes from “flying by the seat of your pants.” It means to write without a plan, to just see what happens and how a story develops organically. Now, you may have some of the broad strokes like an opening scene, an ending, or even a few notable scenes scattered through your story, but essentially you’re flying blind.
I’m a plotter (and reformed pantser) and I attribute my newfound ability to actually fucking FINISH something to that fact.
Basic Narrative Structure
Honestly, there are more models of story structure than I’d care to mention. Most are complete horseshit and are needlessly complex. The fundamentals cover the essence of a narrative structure just fine, and you can learn it in minutes. It’s made up of 7 basic parts.
- opening scene
- rising action
- falling action
And of course I’m going to talk about each one individually. As you read on, it’s important to remember that this diagram is NOT TO SCALE. The length of time – or number of pages – between the opening scene and conflict are not necessarily the same as between the resolution and the denouement. Nor do rising action and falling action necessarily occupy the same page space. This is a simplification of narrative structure common to virtually all stories. (This might be hardwired into our brains.)
The opening scene is… well… it’s the opening scene. It’s the first look we get at your characters and setting. That’s pretty much it. If you’re unfamiliar with opening scenes, then your first order of business is to go read a novel immediately. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200… Just go read something right now. I’ll wait.
Ready? Because as basic as the opening scene is, it’s important that it does a few things well.
- It introduces your main character or characters.
- It establishes the setting.
- It introduces the conflict… Our next item!
This is THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF YOUR STORY. When your eyes stop ringing after my ALL CAPS BARRAGE ON YOUR BRAIN, I’ll explain why.
Conflict is the difference between a story and a report. I don’t read Oliver Twist to find out what he had for breakfast. I read Oliver Twist to find out why he doesn’t have any breakfast and how he gets breakfast. (Honestly, I’ve never read Oliver Twist and don’t like Dickens in general, but I’m pretty sure breakfast occurs.) The conflict of your story is why people are reading it. They want to know if the main character passes 3rd grade, finds love, catches the killer, saves the world, and/or learns how baked Alaska doesn’t melt. The exact conflict doesn’t matter so long as it follows these criteria:
- It’s important to the characters.
- It resonates with your readers.
That’s why there are so many stories about the world in danger of ending and characters needing to save it. All the characters – and all the readers – live in the world. They like living in the world (or at least it beats the alternative). However, there are also lots of stories about dealing with a class bully, finding true love, or solving a crime. These are also easily digested chunks, which is why they are recurring tropes in stories on the page and on the screen.
Here come the ALL CAPS again… Brace yourself. IT IS NOT FUCKING ARTISTIC TO WRITE A STORY WITHOUT A CONFLICT. (I feel better now.) You may be feeling all avant-garde and such, saying that no one has ever tried that before. You can’t find a single example of a story without a conflict. You’re a freaking genius!
Well, maybe. But probably not.
In fact, the reason why you’ve probably never read a story without a conflict is that those stories suck. If by some miracle (probably involved a drunk orangutan in a decision-making position) such a book was to be released, the public would turn on it. it would be boring, meaningless, and possibly enraging. The conflict in your story could be as mundane as you like – “Does one or does one not butter the bread of a baloney sandwich?” – but it needs to be present. Moreover, it has to be important to the characters and resonate with the reader.
And where does the conflict go? Well, the short answer is that it should be as early as possible. Ideally, the conflict should be established in the opening scene. If that’s not possible for whatever reason, it should be clear by no more than 5% of the way through your book. A forgiving reading will wait a while in hopes of a big payoff… But no reader has infinite patience. Give them the damn conflict already.
Another way to look at conflict is through a character’s goals, but since this post is already sprawling into the thousands of words, let’s leave that for another post.
If the conflict is the more important part of a story, rising action is the largest. (Remember what I said about the diagram not being to scale?) This is the part of the story when the characters try to resolve the conflict, but they fail. That’s right… your heroes FAIL. Their failure is a critical part of rising action. A conflict that doesn’t present any real challenge is boring, at least for adults. (A lot of children’s stories for toddlers have conflicts that are immediately solved, which is probably what makes them so dull for adults.)
So how do we make sure we get rising action? Well, you need to put obstacles between the character and their goals (i.e. resolving the conflict). Is the character a 5th-grader dealing with a bully? Have the kid get in trouble for standing up for himself. Is the character a Southern belle involved with the mysterious stranger? Have him called away to war… for the enemy. Is a group of heroes off to slay a dragon? Put other monsters, hazards, and delays (like maybe a Southern belle or two) between them and their final foe.
Just remember that each of the obstacles placed between the main characters and their goals should also follow the narrative structure. Each one has a clear beginning (opening scene) and the obstacle itself a conflict that distracts from the main conflict. There will be some rising action – though probably a shortened version – and then a climax, resolution, and denouement. Makes the stakes of each obstacle real and lasting, but make each surmountable on the way to the point of highest action: the climax.
The climax of a story is the point of highest action. Put another way, it is when the tension of the narrative reaches the breaking point. In terms of conflict, it is the point at which the conflict poses the greatest threat to the characters – physically or emotionally. This is the point where the main character has their goal within grasp. The conflict has a chance to be resolved. Then when happens?
Notice I don’t say that the main character achieves their goal at the climax. Nor do I say that the conflict gets fixed. This is where the main character’s goal could be achieved. It could also mean that this is where the main character ultimately fails. It all depends on what kind of story you’re writing.
Happy = Characters achieve goals (or something like them) and the conflict is resolved for the better
Tragic = Characters fail goals and the conflict is resolved for the worse (and the author might be an asshole)
Bittersweet = Either the characters succeed OR the conflict is resolved for the better NOT both
Twist = Everything turns on its head. Up is down and left is right. BE WARY OF THE TWIST ENDING! About 90% of the time, you’re not nearly as smart as you think you are.
Just remember that the climax represents the highest level of tension your readers are going to feel. It’s when everyone – reader, writer, and characters – are the most invested. So this part of your story is a pretty big deal. Treat it with respect, and then move on to the next part of your story.
This is a part of a story that doesn’t get nearly enough attention in my estimation. Even its literary reference – the anti-climax – is practically a dirty word. This is likely due to the fact that the falling action is by its definition, not that exciting. Falling action is usually pretty brief, too, appearing to be an afterthought. But a writer ignores this part at their peril. This section need not be long, but it’s an important part of any great story.
“Why?” you ask? Well, reader-in-my-head, it’s because we all need a little time to come down from all the excitement of the climax. What do we do after a great meal? We sit and chat, maybe sip a brandy or scotch. We don’t head back to the kitchen. What do we do after we win the big game? We go to the locker room and talk about our victory. We don’t go on to the next match. What do we do after sex? We cuddle and relax. (Or so I’m told.)
The falling action is your reader's chance to snuggle with you after you just mindfucked them. Click To Tweet Bring them down soft and easy.
Here characters will pick up the pieces of what was broken and maybe admire what was built. There might be a little levity and humor, or maybe just a few deep breaths to really think about what the author’s just done. This is where the reader will recognize your brilliance. You won’t need to give them long, but there should be at least a little while to pause and reflect on our way to…
The resolution is when the conflict is completely, totally, and utterly done. It is resolved. (Again, the readers may not like the resolution, and it may not be a happy one, but the conflict is can now be called finished.)
This is where the characters – or the survivors – acknowledge that the conflict is over. It’s the wedding in a comedy or the survivors’ lament in a tragedy. In a fantasy, this is when the heroes return triumphant after defeating the big bad. Meanwhile, in a horror, it’s when the characters realize they’re safe (for now) and can try to find some degree of normal. In a thriller or mystery, the crime has been solved beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Again, the conflict is fucking DONE. This is just an opportunity for the reader to finally settle in with what has just transpired. And this need not be very long, but it is a time to make sure that the reader clearly knows that the resolution. It doesn’t need to be long (again, the diagram above is not to scale), but it has to be there if only to allow your reader to come to grips with the fact that the story is indeed finished.
So what else could there possibly be?
All right… I’ll admit that this one is kind of optional, but it can completely change a story. The denouement is the part of the story where the author deals with all the loose ends. Again, my word choice here is deliberate: I did not say ties up all the loose ends. A denouement may do that, but it’s not the only option.
- Tie up the loose ends into pretty little bows. Your conflict is resolved. All is right with the world. (Or everything is sad and shitty.) We’re done here. Go home, people, we’re done here.
- Tie those ends into sloppy knots. Okay, so your conflict is resolved, but there are still some unanswered questions. What does the protagonist do next? What happened to the butler’s parrot? I don’t recommend this option as it’s likely to enrage your readers – I have rage-quit authors because they did this once. But some people might actually enjoy the extra emotional jolt.
- Leave a thread dangling and point at it. Ah, the cliffhanger ending. If this is a book in a series, then this is almost essential (and certainly expected). But even in a standalone story, a cliffhanger at least opens the possibility of a sequel. Even if a sequel never happens, a little uncertainty (a LITTLE) can keep the reader thinking about your book long after they put it down.
So for my example, I’m going to take a look at the film Gladiator. Yeah, don’t fucking judge me. Love it or hate it, this movie has some staying power. Besides winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, it seems to always be cropping up. It also hits all the points of narrative – or “beats” – very clearly and succinctly. Also, the movie is old enough that you can’t blame me for spoiling it for you.
- Opening scene: We meet Maximus – a powerful warrior and brilliant general – along with the royal family of the Roman Empire. Asses are kicked, and characters are established. Yay? But no.
- Conflict: Turns out Caesar’s son – Cometus – is a real douche, so the ailing emperor chooses Maximus to succeed him. Prince Douche doesn’t like that and kills his father, tries to kill Maximus, and then kills Maximus’s family. Conflict – and character goal – is established: vengeance.
- Rising Action: Maximus is captured and made a slave. His new master makes him fight as a gladiator, which leads to many more gruesome ass kickings. The slave owner – a former gladiator himself – goes to Rome where Maximus is within reach of his goal and Cometus is running amok as Caesar. Those in power want him out. Sub-plots are introduced: the royal family’s dynamic is established as both incesty and murdery; an attempt to free Maximus to lead an army against Cometus fails and lots of politicians die (mixed feelings); there are some really awesome gladiator battles; and schemes are generally hatched.
- Climax: Maximus and Cometus finally get a chance to duke it out! But then Emperor Douche stabs Maximus on their way to their deathmatch, followed by much other douchery. But Maximus kicks more ass! He wins!
- Falling Action: In this particular case, it involves a lot of choking on bodily fluids and bulging eyes. Action falls right off a cliff in this one, proving that there is no prescription for how long any of this needs to be.
- Resolution: Cometus dies. (Fuck him, right?)
- Denouement: Maximus also dies, and is honored as a hero. He also gets to go to Elysium – a pretty sweet-looking afterlife – and see his dead family. Loose ends tied and set.
So where do you fall on the spectrum?
Are you a pantser, writing wherever the wind blows you? Or are you a plotter, mapping out every little move? Or are you somewhere in between? Because having a Plan A doesn’t mean you can’t also have Plans B to Z. It’s good to have a plan, but it’s also good to have some flexibility. Your plan will keep you writing when you’ve lost your way, but it shouldn’t be a straightjacket. Plans change, and stories grow. Sure, you may have to re-work your plan a bit as you go, but that’s just part of the creative process.
So which are you?
Want more how to finish your first novel? Check out the aptly named series: How to FINISH Your First Novel. Or for other writing advice that you’ve heard before, stop on by Pretentious Sh*t That Works.
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