In my nine-year apprenticeship as a novel writer, I first learned the mechanics of writing a good scene. A crackerjack critique group quickly taught me point-of-view nuances and the difference between showing and telling. I already knew some of the other basics from my nonfiction writing, such as using strong verbs. My first few pages started looking pretty good.
But then where did my story go from there? Story-tellers typically use three acts: short beginning, long middle, short end, like a suspension bridge seen from the side. That middle act, Act 2, looked pretty discouraging to me.
Maybe you instinctively know how to avoid the saggy middle, where your story flails around and bores readers on its way to the big climax at the end. But this wasn’t the case for me. I had to study the matter.
The protagonist needs to go on a quest, teachers said. Well, what if my character is passive, letting things happen to her? After a while I realized that the victim protagonist doesn’t yield a good story. Who wants to read about a victim, even if she eventually pulls her act together a bit? So, give your protagonist a quest, something she’s willing to risk a lot for.
Then put obstacles in the way, obstacles that keep getting worse. Tension needs to build. Think of bad things that could happen and make the worst ones happen to the poor character. The story is about conflict, and without conflict, there’s no story.
Each page, each paragraph needs tension. If it’s not there, re-think the scene. Make sure the main character in the scene has a goal at the beginning, and that there are roadblocks for that goal appearing as the scene goes by. Make the scene a mini-story with its own beginning, middle, and end. Be sure to describe the character’s emotional reaction. Because, after all, your reader wants an emotional ride.
Novels are long. To create more conflict situations, my protagonist needs to have an inner journey as well as an outer journey, I learned. She’s got a quest going, but she also needs to learn something along the way about her character flaws. She’ll come out a better person in the end, even as she reaches (or doesn’t reach) her quest goal.
I know now that my learning curve could have been a lot shorter than nine years, if I had found the right teachers to teach me. You can find suggestions on our Resources page, and you can also look for a good editor to coach you one-on-one.