Six Magic Words to Write a Novel

It’s NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, when many of you who don’t normally write will be trying to write a short novel in 30 days (and some of you who normally do will try to get a jump start on projects that need doing).

Generally people find it easy to start a novel, not so easy to keep it going after the initial burst of action and setup. The reason is that concepts are easy. Sustaining them, particularly when you’re not practiced at it, is hard.

Concept
Concepts are the easy part. Here are a the concepts for four of my novels (three you might recognize, one is in the works:
“The National Security Advisor escapes a contract on his life by leaving the planet.”
“A group of bohemian artists gets buried in an avalanche.”
“A soccer mom hires a surly private detective to find her missing daughter.”
“On her first night in her new apartment, a woman’s car is stolen only to be returned in the morning.”

This is your elevator pitch, stripped down to its bare essentials. It’s what is technically known as your “inciting incident,” and it’s where most people start a story: an idea that can be described in a single, action-oriented sentence.

When Concepts Run Out
If you’ve got a good strong concept, it’s easy to barge into your new novel with all the confidence in the world, right up until you hit a hard wall and can’t write anymore. The story just doesn’t have anywhere else to go.

We all hit this wall at some point. Some of us hit it with every book. Some of us write short fiction splendidly, but can’t quite ever do novels, because the mystical power of sustaining action eludes us.

Well, I can give you the secret to the mystical power. All you need are the Six Magic Words.

Six Magic Words
There are six magic words that you can append to the end of any concept sentence that transforms the idea from something appropriate for a short story, a sketch, or a prose poem into one that is more appropriate for a novel. Those words are:
“…and then everything goes to hell.”

Why?

It gives you a bridge into act two. Your concept is act 1 of the traditional five act story structure. Act two is “complication,” which can be hard to get into once you’re done with all the setup. You have your scene set, and now, for drama to proceed, you have to break something. You don’t want to, cause it’s beautiful. Or you can’t figure out what to break, because you don’t know what will happen. But if everything goes to hell, your life is simpler. You can break everything, see what works, then fix the things you didn’t need to break or that get in the way of the story. Or you can stagger the order in which things break. You have options–but you don’t have to pick between them right away.

Which gives you the freedom to plunge on writing.

I’m not the first to come up with this — most writers have their version. My favorite was Raymond Chandler’s answer when a fan asked him “How do you beat writer’s block?”

He said: “Someone with a gun comes through the front door. By the time I figure out who they are and why they’re there, the story is moving again.”

Happy writing!

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One Comment

  1. I believe Heinlein’s direction was ‘start with crisis and work toward climax.’

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