CHAPTER 1: The Big Idea
Seems as though everyone has a big idea that they believe will make a great novel. Some of them may be right, but generally ideas that come to a novice constitute only a tiny part of the entire concept that constitutes an idea for a novel. When I lived in Boulder, Colorado, I had a physicist friend who had a Ph.D. come to me with an idea. He imagined, he said, that a man found a suitcase with a million dollars inside an airport bathroom stall. The man would be obsessed with the money and what to do with it. But the physicist couldn’t write the story beyond the first fifty pages. “There are too many possibilities,” he said. “How do I know what this guy will do with the money?” Actually, my friend had described an interesting situation, but he didn’t have a full-blown idea for a novel.
It takes a multitude of ingredients to formulate a full novel concept. The ingredients involve not only situations, but also characters, conflicts, settings, and above all theme. In my friend’s situation, his character could have taken the suitcase along with the money to the police, walked away, and it would have had no impact on his life at all. But his character could also have taken it home and come into conflict with the owner, possibly a drug dealer. He could also have immediately purchased an airline ticket, flown to a foreign country and disappeared into the countryside. The possibilities are endless, and the final choice of what to do with the money will say something crucial about character and theme. So how do you formulate a story that has all the elements orchestrated so that it constitutes a fine piece of literature?
Janet Burroway, in her book Writing Fiction (probably the best book ever written on the subject) says that:
The organic unity of a work of literature cannot be taught–or, if it can, I have not discovered a way to teach it. I can suggest from time to time that concrete image is not separate from character, which is revealed in dialogue and point of view, which may be illuminated by simile, which may reveal theme, which is contained in plot as water is contained in an apple. But I cannot tell you how to achieve this…5
The process I have developed does precisely this.
The many books on novel writing are little more than a hodgepodge of ideas about the subject, but what we will do here gets down to revealing the secrets of where it comes from and how to put it all together. What you will need first is a description of the underlying structure that makes all novels work, the DNA of a novel, so to speak.
So, where do you begin? How do you determine the structure of your story beforehand? How are the infinity of elements related? All of these questions, I will answer shortly, but first, we must get some preliminaries out of the way.
THE NOVEL: What is it?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the novel as:
A fictitious prose narrative or tale of considerable length (now usually one long enough to fill one or more volumes), in which characters and actions representative of the real life of past or present times are portrayed in a plot of more or less complexity.
I would also include the real life of future times in this definition, so as to cover science fiction. I would argue that the word “fictitious” may not always apply, because many historical novels are more historically accurate than are some history texts. Milan Kundera, the great Czech novelist, has had it said about his novels that they are “a meditation on existence,”6 which really leaves the subject wide open.
A novel does not present real life, but it does bear a relationship to it. Some say it is an “illusion of life.” Or it can be approached even more casually, as in Henry James’ statement that “A novel is of its very nature an ‘ado,’ an ado about something, and the larger the form it takes the greater of course the ado.”7 I would define the novel as: an extended dramatic narration concerning a particular subject or event. I put forth these definitions to illustrate how ambiguous and flexible the novel art form is. And although I’ll give you specific instructions here on how to discover and structure your story, please realize that what you create may be something no one has ever seen before, and have an original structure.
Novels come in many forms, and the technique described here can be used to create any of them. They may be science fiction, mystery, romance, western, true crime, thriller, historical. Your novel can be mainstream or literary fiction, a children’s story or young adult. Literary fiction is more character based than mainstream, which is plot based. Know where your novel will fit among the multitude. Who is your audience? You must be writing for someone. Who is it? An author, first and foremost, should read. All these things, the author should know and do before he starts writing. Part of learning the craft is to know how others practice it and what they produce as a final product.
Some writers have broken down the techniques available to the novelist as equal parts “method and madness,” and this concept will be useful to us. The way an author constructs his novel, the craft, is the “method.” Where all the raw material comes from, the original idea, characters and events, narrative style, etc., is the “madness.” We will study craft first. We’ll say a little about where the idea for a novel, the initial impulse, comes from. But this will be fairly basic stuff, and I’ll leave the rest until later, when we’ll do what we can about studying the “madness.”
THE CENTRAL IDEA
The idea for the novel can come from anywhere. Sometimes the idea will come from some traditional story, an action drawn from life, or a personal fantasy. It can come from personal experience, or be completely imaginary, as was my friend’s fantasy about the man finding a suitcase. It can be built around a single character, as in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or an event, as in Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. It should be something you know about or are willing to learn about through extensive research. One of the best places to find an idea is in your own personal fantasies, especially those involving conflict. Dreams, particularly recurring dreams, are an excellence source. Some experts will advise you to write the type of novel you enjoy reading, but my opinion is that reading and writing are radically different activities. Write what you want to write.
Some writers borrow from other authors. Shakespeare rarely had an original storyline. Many times, he borrowed from Plutarch’s Lives. (Plutarch was a Greek who wrote in the 2nd century AD.) A Midsummer Night’s Dream came from Theseus, and Coriolaneus came from Plutarch’s biography of the ancient Greek hero. Jane Smiley took the storyline for A Thousand Acres from Shakespeare’s King Lear and won a Pulitzer. Cinderella has been disguised and retold countless times. Gothic novels are of that nature. Jane Eyre, Rebecca, the movie Working Girl are all Cinderella stories.
Other sources might include a personal event, family history, or something that happened to a friend. The TV series “Law and Order” frequently uses a story “ripped from a newspaper headline.” But the most original material will come from personal experience. If you are on the outlook for an idea, it can come from anywhere. Consider the origin of Henry James’ novel, The Spoils of Poynton, which I’ve included as Attachment I. The idea came to him suddenly during an evening meal and was provoked by an innocent comment by a woman sitting next to him.
If a blacksmith took an expensive piece of metal into his furnace, worked the bellows till he was blue in the face and the metal glowing white hot, and then beat on it with his hammer and tongs until it had a unique shape, you’d expect that shape to be something useful or a least something an observer could identify. But if everyone who saw it said, “What is it?” the blacksmith would be pressed into the embarrassing task of explaining what he had created. The same is true for the novelsmith. He would be well advised to create a novel with subject matter that a potential reader can identify with a minimum of scrutiny. It should immediately “resonate” with the reader.
People in publishing today (and particularly in Hollywood) are looking for works that are “high concept.” By this they mean that the main subject or essence of the work can be clearly exposed in a few words. Think of ways to express your idea so that it is immediately understandable. The statement will most likely expose the central conflict and say something about the storyline. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishmentmight be identified as, “A young man’s attempt to come to terms with himself after committing murder.” If you can’t summarize your story in one sentence, you probably don’t know what your own novel is about. We’ll cover how to do this in detail in the next chapter.
Writing a novel is always accomplished in the dark and is very much a process of discovery. Never mind that you have your computer screen brightness on maximum, the place your material comes from is dark and foreboding. Plus, you really don’t know the story until you’ve written it. Yet, you can’t structure it properly until you know the story. Because of this Catch 22, you must write it and rewrite it several times. To begin with, you must have the germ of an idea. Trying to apply a story structure to it will help it develop. If the idea is the art, the structure is the craft.
ART THROUGH CRAFT
The idea for a novel is like a wild horse. You have to harness it to get it under control and discipline it. Your novel will develop as you write, but you will always feel as though you are riding your horse in the dark with a little lantern to show the way. That’s why you need to work within a structure that can throw that much-needed light on the subject matter and reveal where it’s leading you. In the following pages, I will present a method for developing your idea. It will result in a first draft, so that a full novel can be written from it. Don’t be deluded into believing that this is the only way to write a novel. This method, however, will help you understand the energy inherent in any novel, and how it may be harnessed. You can then go out on your own to find unusual ways to structure your novel.
The idea, particularly if it comes from true-life experience, must undergo a transformation before it becomes a novel. Because storytelling is such a part of our lives, we think of it as a representation of life itself, but a novel has certain characteristics that take it out of the real world. In fact, the existence of any story is outside real life. As shown in Figure 1, a transformation process takes place during the creation of the novel.
This transformation is the craft of novel writing. Much of it will be identical to the ordinary storytelling we do everyday when someone asks, “How did it go at the office?” But further realize that the process is not simply a description of real-life events. A transformation takes place when we take “real-life” into the world of the novel, and that transformation occurs through craft. As an example, conversation is transformed into “dialogue” to sound “normal” within a novel. Dialogue is an abbreviated or edited version of normal conversation. Everything is magnified and has a storyline connection; therefore, the author has to develop a new set of proportions to judge the impact of his words on the reader.
“But,” you may say, “I don’t want to be a craftsman. I want to be an artist.” Craft is the method, the discipline, of dealing with all artistic endeavors. The artist, the author, must learn his craft to get his ideas into the fictional world. Art, for some reason, doesn’t want to be criticized or reviewed, perhaps because it is so ego-related. On the other hand, craftsmanship by its very nature implies an apprenticeship, a period of trial and failure, and a certain level of skill before becoming a master craftsman. Viewing novel writing, novelsmithing, as a craft takes the pressure off your initial efforts, and opens them up to critique. Plus, it means that, to learn to write, you must write, write, write until you get it right.
I use the metaphor of a blacksmith for the novelist because a blacksmith is the consummate craftsman. He gets as down and dirty as any and more than most. Plus his tools, anvil and hammer, tongs, bellows, are coarse, heavy tools, and his actions, the swing of the hammer, the whoosh of the bellows, ring throughout the countryside. This is in opposition to the actions of the novelsmith, who sits quietly at his computer, only the faint click of the keys audible above his own breathing. By viewing novel writing as smithing, we can exaggerate the novelsmith’s actions to better see their complexity and gauge their importance, and to help us keep our focus on the craft.
The blacksmith is not the only metaphor that we’ll use to uncover the craft of novel writing. We’ll use other analogies as appropriate. Some may criticize the metaphor mixing, but we’ll play it loose and shoot from the hip when necessary.
That concludes the introductory remarks. To follow the discussion from here on, you should have an idea for the novel you wish to write. You will be developing that idea into a rough draft. But the central most important fact you should retain from this introduction is that the real world and the fictional world are radically different, and that you can only get your story into the fictional world through narrative craft.
(a) Before proceeding to the next chapter, write down your own concept, your idea, for your novel. (b) List two or three of the major characters. This will help define the core of your idea, so that it can be further fleshed out in the next chapter.