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The corridor, the cliff and the car chase

Plan your novel

The corridor, the cliff and the car chase

So far in this series of blog posts on how to plan your novel, we’ve looked at the stories you love, and the sense of connection they generate with readers, and we’ve discussed framework, and why the events at the centre of a story make you, the reader or viewer, feel a particular way. Now we’re going to look at particular techniques you can use to keep your reader reading. What’s that got to do with planning a novel? All will be revealled in the next post!

Look again at those middles

  • Take the middles – from stories you love – from the last exercise. Did you identify any techniques that produced a certain effect, emotionally or physically?
  • Identify any techniques they have in common.

Examples

Here are some examples. Yours will be different, depending on the types of stories you love:

  • Character walks slowly down a hotel corridor in the dark. Prose slows down. Lots of brief specific details related to his senses. I feel like I’m looking through his eyes, straining to see. Heart-beats faster. Adrenaline rush. I can’t stop reading. Indistinct voices behind one door. Classical music from another, sounds like a scratchy vinyl record, soft, but getting louder. I can hear it. Suddenly we cut to the hotel reception, where the receptionist is trying to coax a young child to tell her where her parents are.
  • Just as a character falls off a cliff, cuts to a different scene. Feel frustrated. Have to keep reading to find out what happens. Suddenly we’re plunged into a courtroom and a (at first ponderous) testimony from a detective about a murder that happened 20 years ago. Quick moments of flashback to the past. Short sentences. Vivid. Lots of sensory detail but no dialogue. Colour of blood against a dull background. Shocked. Feel like putting the book down. Have to keep reading to find out what happens to the character we left mid-fall.
  • I have to put my hand over the opposite page to stop me reading on. In a car, weaving around traffic. The prose is moving quickly to match. The sentences are short. I can picture the street and the swerving cars, and see the colours, smell the pollution, when the character suddenly crashes into a wall. I don’t know if he’s safe. We cut to another scene.

Forget story content for a moment

We’re not so bothered about the content of the story here. Let’s think about the techniques these examples have in common. Remember I’m going to look at how these techniques affect planning a novel in the next post. For now, we’ll work with the techniques themselves.

  • The writers have changed the sentence length and the speed of the prose to match some element of the scene. The walk down the corridor is frightening, the car chase is fast, the testimony is ponderous, the quick flashbacks are like horrific intrusive memories etc.
  • The writers have used sensory detail. The sounds in the corridor, the colour of blood, the smell of the traffic etc.
  • They all use threat or jeopardy of some kind.
  • We’re watching the action ‘live’ and through a character’s point of view. We look through his or her eyes as they walk down the corridor, give testimony in court, drive at speed in traffic. What happens unfolds step-by-step and isn’t all revealed at once.
  • As a result, as a reader I feel like I’m in the scene (known as ‘transportation’) because I can imagine it so clearly. I identify with the main characters because I’m looking through their eyes.
  • Each scene involves cutting away at just the right moment to keep you guessing, and therefore reading. You’ll most likely have seen this done many times in films, on TV and in books. Writers / directors who do it well will have you so involved in the story that you’ll notice the emotion / physical reaction you’re having and not the technique that caused it.

So what techniques can we apply to our own work?

In summary, these writers:

  • Control the length of sentences and the speed of the prose for story reasons.
  • Use sensory detail.
  • Go step-by-step (as if we were there).
  • Let us look through a character’s eyes.
  • Put their characters in danger, not necessarily physical, but the stakes are high.
  • Cut when a danger is unresolved.

Here’s today’s exercise

Take one of the scenes from the middle of your novel that you planned during the previous exercise. Write it without worrying about it being ‘good’. In fact, try to write it badly. Simply record what will happen in the scene like you’re telling the actors in a stage play version what to do and where to go when. Leave it for a while.

How to revise your scene

During a second session, revise the scene. Aim to do the following:

  • Use sensory detail.
  • Use minimal dialogue and interior monologue.
  • Go step-by-step (as if we were there).
  • Let us look through a character’s eyes.
  • Put your characters in danger.

A third revision session

Leave the scene for while, before revising the scene again. This time:

  • control the length of sentences and the speed of the prose for story reasons.
  • Match the speed of the prose to the speed of the action or contrast the two, make them oppose one another.
  • Or match the sentence length and feel of the prose to the emotion you’re hoping to evoke in the reader.
  • Cut to a new scene when the danger is unresolved.

To help you remember these techniques, think yourself into the hotel corridor, the fall from the cliff, and the high speed car chase.

Want more?

Next I’m going to look at how these three powerful exercises work together to enable you to plan your novel.

More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Lou

P.S. Here’s the next post in the series.

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