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Helpful tips on writing and pacing your novel






     Plot and sub-plot/s

The main plot is the backbone of the story. This begins page one and continues throughout until the final page. It should pitch and ease throughout the chapters, kind of like an ocean where the waves are stormy one day and calming the next. This gives the reader ample time to be grabbed by the story but also gives them time to take a breather now and then without boring them. However, it needs to pitch more than it eases. If you picture, for example, the human spine as the weight bearer and what gives the rest of the body its form, this is what the main plot does. Without it, and without its continued strength, the story has nothing to hold it upright.

Sub-plot/s are a necessary edition to give any story other dimensions. A human spine isnít much good by itself and supporting nothing around it. However a sub-plot/s does not need to be introduced at the beginning and can be wrapped up before the final page. One sub-plot is sufficient, two or more are better. Having said that, we donít want so many sub-plots they take over and confuse the reader. They should enhance the main plot not override it. They should enable the main character/s to have other aspects to their lives and can be used to boost the story in sections where you ease the main plot off for a bit.

Pacing the story and Character Development

Chapter one should begin with something to snatch reader attention in the first paragraph, preferably the first five sentences. We can be introduced to the main character in chapter one but it's not imperative. The first page must contain enough information to keep a reader reading. Therefore we need to quickly and effectively give insight into the main plot in that first page and continue that right through chapter one. We need to know what the story is about with a promise of whatís to follow further down the line. Keep in mind, whether you introduce your main character in chapter one or not, he/she needs to develop a relationship with the reader rapidly; he/she needs to give a reason for why the reader would want to read about them. Before finishing chapter one there has to be a clear-cut introduction into the following twenty to twenty-five chapters.

Where do we go from chapter one? For the sake of examples, lets have a rough estimate on your manuscript being twenty chapters long. (Itíll probably be more than this but you can tidy up loose ends during the editing and polishing process) Therefore lets break it down into five chapter lots for now.

Weíve already looked at chapter one so what should happen from two to five? Chapter two should introduce supporting characters if they havenít been introduced already. Even if they have, we need to know more about them. We also need to know about your main character fairly soon if he/she is yet to make their appearance. In those first five chapters their personalities need to be upper most in importance in the same way as the unfolding of the main plot. They go hand in hand with one another. Remember, we need to pace this story out over around twenty chapters. SoÖwe need intrigue! We need to pull the reader in and hopefully keep them there. Tempt the reader into your fictional world by evoking a sense of wonder. If you can keep a reader through the first five chapters chances are theyíll stick around until the end. Within this five chapter time frame you should introduce the sub-plot or, if thereís multiple sub-plots, introduce the first. Your main plot should be well and truly cooking by now, by throwing a sub-plot into the pot at this stage you also shift the story away from two dimensional. The main objective is always to keep up reader intrigue. Another thing to always remember is this; your main character and supporting main characters must NEVER leave the reader feeling indifferent about them. A reader needs to bond with them and they wonít, or canít, do this unless enough background is given for them to be able to. Give your characters nuances, give them characteristics, personality quirks, likes and dislikes, etc. The more you do this the more realistic they become. The more realistic they become, the more a reader can bond with them. The first five chapters are your hook. They should be fast paced but they should also ebb and flow. Highs and lows, with more focus on the highs at this point. Character development and plot development are crucial here.

Chapter six to ten Ė Every chapter should be a story inside a story. Yes, you will have bridging chapters that are more a stepping stone to something more exciting and dramatic promised in the next chapter. That beings said, they still need to say something. We still need the ebb and flow going right throughout, we donít want to lose a reader at any stage. If weíre working on a twenty chapter basis we need to consider that chapter ten brings us half way through. Sub-plots should be simmering away nicely here, as should the main plot. A sub-plot is a good way to shift some of that focus away from the main occasionally and so we can concentrate on those a little more during this stage. We can ease the throttle off the main. For example, if your main plot is dark, heavy reading perhaps itís time to take advantage of a Ďbreatherí. Having said that, itís not a time to bore the reader either. Use your sub-plots to your advantage here. Another example, if one sub-plot is about the romance between two characters we can work that more. Always keep your main plot bubbling away in the background, donít lose it altogether. Hint toward it, mention it, work it in subtlety, even slap the reader in the face with it when they least expect it and then let the ebb happen again. You have to be very careful here and always keep in your mind that thereís a fine line between easing off and completely stopping mid-stride. If your story has the element of mystery then you need to keep the reader guessing, setting up clues here and there, but always be vigilant about not giving the game away too soon.

Chapter eleven to fifteen Ė You want to pick up the pace again here. Perhaps with something dramatic early on to snap the reader back into attention that, yes, there is a main plot and here it is again in all its glory! Weíre on the home straight and so nowís the time to start figuring out how things will tie up in the end. Without some idea as to how the story will end youíll find your lead up to it will kind of fizzle out. Again we need to work the intrigue. Keep the reader guessing, keep them turning pages, and pick up their pulse, so to speak. Lay more clues, give more insight, and give a sniff and a taste of whatís to come. Character development should be signed, sealed, and delivered by now. We should know enough about them to understand them and their choices. Or, we should know enough about them to know theyíre unpredictable, hiding something, good or bad, we should know what their capable of and have bated breath in wanting to know how they pan out a certain scenario. At chapter fifteen you could also have some sort of crescendo, some sort of major event, a dramatic spill over of events, an ĎOh my God, I didnít see that coming!í moment setting the scene for the ending.

Chapter sixteen to twenty Ė You have to begin to tie everything up here. Main plot and sub-plots have to gel together at this point. Not all sub-plots appear to be directly linked to the main or the main characters but by the end they need to. Again you have to be vigilant and leave no threads dangling by the last page. If your ĎOh my God, I didnít see that coming!í moment happened in the previous chapters there is no need to have another major ĎOh my Godí moment at the end. Youíll still need to keep the pace ticking over nicely here though, leading the reader to satisfactory conclusion and a sense that everything came together at the end. Having said that, you donít want the end to be mundane in comparison to the drama of previous chapters. All happens for a reason, a big reason because, letís face it, thatís what the entire story was about wasnít it? It was about taking a journey with the character/s until their entire story is told and the ending has to be dramatic great, happy great, peaceful great, successful great Ė it just has to be great! It has to leave the reader putting the book aside and thinking, Ďwow! Iím so glad I was a part of their lives for three hundred pages!í

If your ĎOh my God, I didnít see that coming!í moment hasnít occurred yet, it obviously needs to occur now. Same principals apply though; all loose ends need to be tied up with nothing left unaccounted for. By the end of chapter twenty we need to still feel that element of all making sense in the end. That might sound obvious but itís very easy to forget to tie up everything neatly. Sometimes you can get to the end and think, Ďuh oh, I forgot about so and soí. As with the first five chapters the last five need to be as well paced. That doesnít necessarily mean dramatic pacing, it just means ticking over nicely with more flow than ebb.

A few things to consider

Keep in mind, even when you finish the first draft and you think to yourself, ĎIím really, really happy with this!í I can guarantee youíll read it back and know itís not the final draft. It never is. The reason for that is because the further you get into the story the more nuances you add to characters, the more intrigue you add to plot and sub-plot, and all of this needs to be incorporated at the beginning. Most publishers will say that unless a manuscript has been reworked and rewritten in places at least three times itís not ready to be seen by anyone else. Sometimes you have to be brutal. If you write twelve chapters and you get to thirteen and you realise itís not working, you canít be too scared to hit delete. Itís not a waste of writing to do this, itís actually a learning curve into what works and what doesnít and sets the stage for a better version to come.

Here are a few exercises to maybe help and keep filed for future reference. Whatever you write here is not ironclad, obviously, but it can help to give you some building blocks to work with. Be as descriptive as you can be with your answers.

What is the main plot?
What is/are the sub-plot/s?

Who is your main character? Describe him/her in detail, including personality traits, physical appearance, speech (Do they have an accent, do they have a speech impediment, do they have certain words they favour, etc), nationality, height, build, fashion sense, likes, dislikes, as much as you can detail about them.

Who is/are your main supporting character/s? Give them the same description as above.

Are there any other characters? Describe them.

Where is the story set and why is it set there?

Now Ė chances are you wonít ever use all the detail you write down here. Except in the cases of characterisation where I think itís imperative. Just because you might not use the detail doesnít mean itís not important for you to know. After all, these characters are your babies. Theyíre your creative children, youíve invented them and youíre responsible for breathing life into them. With that in mind, you need to know their every detail because if you donít know them fully, a reader wonít ever be able to know them either.

Lastly Ė donít get overwhelmed! Yeah, sure it can be a pain getting the logistics right when all you want to do is write beautiful words with beautiful meanings behind them. But just because something can be a pain, and can be incredibly frustrating, doesnít mean it canít also be enjoyable. You canít bake a fantastic cake with mediocre ingredients, no matter how good your intentions are.




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Posted on 2007-07-16, By: *

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