Last week I mentioned a little program called Scrivener, but I’d only dipped my toe in the pool in terms of what it can do. Scrivener is one of those tools that’s only as good as its user it takes a commitment to understanding what it can do for you. Lucky for most people, writing takes a great deal of commitment on its own.
That said, this isn’t really a tool for hobbyists. Using Scrivener will expose unsightly plot holes and identify inconsistencies. It poses the same dangers as endless world building—a topic I’ve mentioned on the blog before.
What it does and does well is bringing world building in line with the creation process. Therefore, you can actually write your novel while creating the details in tandem. This is great for people good at world building, hell for people that aren’t.
Over the next four weeks, I’ll go over the basics of laying down my approach to writing a novel, and a final post explaining in detail how Scrivener makes this better.
To do this let’s think of creating a novel on three levels:
- The Big Picture (Today)
- Character Arcs (12/23)
- Chapter by Chapter Happenings (12/30)
Number one is so important and, in my experience, it is the thing people neglect the most in novels. As the top level of novel planning, whenever you write something into your project you should be able to ask (and answer) the question: Does this chapter work into the Big Picture? This assumes you’re actually writing Genre Fiction. All bets are off when you’re writing Literary work or Non-Fiction work.
Scrivener knows that too (it’s the first thing the templates ask you!).
I also suggest ignoring me if you are writing Romance and you feel the romance is the key plot of the story. In that case, I’d politely point you to this article.
With that aside out of the way, here’s a little rule of thumb that might help with the big picture: Avoid bringing up issues that aren’t addressed in the novel you’re writing. Resist the urge to use the excuse: “Oh, but that gets resolved in Book Two.” Even if you aren’t a Romance writer, I suggest reading through the link above.
The Big Picture shapes where your Protagonist starts up to where they end up. The novel highlights the events that happen in between. Your reader will never see this plan, instead coming to understand it by the novel’s end. If they don’t… your plot might suck. J
Think of the last great book you read. Then think specifically what you took away from reading it. Talk with another person that read it and ask the same question. Barring some good old writing discussions, people tend to come to similar conclusions.
The Lord of the Rings is long and complex, but ultimately you can boil it down to: A hobbit must take a ring to a mountain before a giant eyeball monster can blow up Middle Earth.
It’s important to be able to pare down your story to that level for pitching purposes alone, but so you can ask yourself ‘does this chapter lead to the main point of the story?’
Devil’s Advocate: Keeping your story TOO focused makes the characters act like robots. That’s the point of the ‘Character Arcs’. I’ll cover that next week.
Think of storytelling like a tree. The trunk is your Big Picture, the branches are the Characters and the Chapter by chapter stuff are sticks, twigs, and leaves. What happens to a tree without a trunk? It’s a pile of leaves. Fun to play in, but a stiff breeze sends everything scattering.
This happens to stories when you get so hung up on the finer details they just fall off the tree and lie around on the ground. People like leaf piles (unless you’re the one that has to sweep them up) but when it comes down to it, it is just a bunch of loose refuse.
What about a tree that without branches? I call this the ‘Telephone Pole’ – completely utilitarian and functional, but it doesn’t stand out.
The ‘tree’ in this case is also dead, processed into a cold basic function. It may be very good at its purpose and isn’t ‘junk’ but once you get beyond its primary use it sits there indefinitely until it needs repaired or replaced. And like a telephone pole, you can paste things onto it afterwards, (like stickers and signs) but it’s still just a pole made of wood or steel.
You want to find a balance, giving your reader a living and breathing narrative with countless uses and intricacies while having the stability to stand up to a strong wind.
Next week I’ll go into the strong branches: The Characters.