Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Writing Wednesday: The Shape of the Novel

I tend to think of novels in terms of shapes. It’s weird, and I can’t draw it out exactly, but basically, I usually think of the shape of a book when I start writing, and then again when I start to edit. 

Now, this advice is not going to be for everyone. You need to understand that what I write and read tends to be commercial genre YA fiction, so the shape of the story I’m talking about is the shape of a commercial genre YA novel. Other novels have different shapes, and I suspect that, in the end, what type of book we like tends to be determined by what shape we want our stories to take. 

Disclaimer: My mother would not approve of the language I use when I think about my own novels, so I used comic-book symbols to replace some words. 

First Fifty Pages
This is where you have to make the reader care about what happens to the main character. This should usually happen in the first few pages, actually. Because…

By the End of the First Fifty Pages
S!^& just hit the fan.

By the Halfway Point of the Novel
S!^& just got real.

By Fifty Pages Until the End of the Novel
S!^& is seriously effed up.

By the End of the Novel
S!^& ain’t so bad any more.

So this is a really blase way to talk about this, but it’s actually pretty much how I chop up my novels into sections and look about how it all works. I guess if I had to describe this shape, it would look something like this (with a note of what these points are more traditionally called):

Click to embiggen

I came up with this theory when I was still querying, actually. I noticed that most agents who asked for a partial asked for the first fifty pages of the manuscript. But a lot of the time, I’d really want to show the agent this really cool thing that happened on page 70 or 80 or 100. So…I cut things until the really cool thing happened by page 50. And that seemed, usually, to clear everything back up. 

I don’t really plan that much before a novel, but I do sort of think of those points as the main highlights I need to shoot for during writing. Where this really hits me is when I revise. I tend to put much more information between the sections than what needs to be there. I get hung up on telling the reader something that seems essential—but the long and the short of it is, if it doesn’t deal with the important s!^&, so it has to go.

To see a complete list of writing posts as well as request topics, please see the master Writing Wednesday post here.


Natalie Aguirre said...

Great tips on the ARC of a story. And I'll have to think about what's going on by the end of the first 50 pages to be sure it's great if I get a request from an agent. Thanks for the tip.

Jay Bendt said...

I think my favorite part is the "S!^& just got seriously effed up."

Thanks for the giggle. This is definitely helpful in terms of thinking about story arc.

Donna K. Weaver said...

This is great! My challenge in pulling these out for my current project deals with two parallel plot lines running with two worlds and two casts of characters.

Natasha Hawkins said...

After reading your advice, I went back to my current manuscript and looked at each of these points (first 50, halfway, 50 until end, and end) and made sure I had just the right "S!^&" in the right places. I also write commercial YA fiction so I believe the shape of my novel should follow your diagram. Very helpful. Thanks!!

Hannah said...

Those are some good thoughts! Thanks for sharing. This might help me think about how I'm planning the layout of my novels.

Steve Shea said...

Succinct and clear! Actually, I thought the sh^t hit the fan around page 3 of ATU. I don't have my copy in front of me, but that beginning hit me somewhere in the entrails. It felt like the rising conflict cohabited with the hook at the beginning. Love the part about the 50 pages. Makes great, practical sense.

Annalise Green said...

This is a very helpful post! Plot doesn't come naturally to me, so I have to think about my stories in this kind of clear and concrete way for the story to have any kind of a shape at all.

Someone recently told me that the beginning and ending should be the same size, and the middle should be twice that size, which is another neat way to check that your story structure is balanced and working.