|Advice For Novelists
Recently, in a conversation with a Writing.Com member, we got talking about writing outlines and character sketches.
Hey, I was just wondering, I struggle with novels quite a bit, never getting them finished. And I know a HUGE problem is not setting them up with outlines and character sketches properly. Would you be willing to point a fellow in the [right] direction on that?
My reply got longer and longer until I decided to write an article and cover the topic fully. Perhaps others might find this helpful, especially if you are in the middle of a novel and it has suddenly gone stale. Where has that inspiration gone? Let me offer you some tips.
So many times in writing a novel I have reached the middle and – poof. The inspiration is gone, just like that. I look around me in surprise and think What now? I think this is a common dilemma for writers, but it doesn't make it any easier to deal with!
Writing a novel is like watching snowflakes fall. No two people do it exactly alike. Each writer has a different way of dealing with writer's block, and I don't claim to have all the answers, or even the best way to overcome the blanks. However, there are tricks you can try, and I recommend some of them here.
Take a break. Often in this situation it's best to turn your focus away from the story for a bit. Step away altogether or work on other aspects of the book, such as background filling, side-stories, subplots, etc. A fresh start can turn out the key to continuing.
Return to the basics. Skip the details, get back to the bare bones of your story. What do you want to achieve with this novel? Where are you taking your characters (or where are they taking you!)? What is the purpose, point, theme? What do you want to say? Have a think about this and also consider the plot and characters.
Think about your message. What are you trying to say? If you don't have something new or unique (or a fresh, interesting look on something), then it's a waste of time. Even if your characters are great but your plot is weak, the novel will only ever be average. And vice versa.
That's where themes come in. Themes really underline it for me. Return to your theme, and think of a thousand scenarios that look at it in a fresh light.
Write a synopsis. Believe me, this helps. It puts everything back in perspective. It shouldn't be longer than a few paragraphs. (You can try a one- or two-sentence summary if you want, but I find this pretty difficult.) Click here for an example of synopsis
Write an outline. I groan every time I hear "outline" and "character sketch". To me they seem so much work for not much purpose. But I've fought with this frustration and forced myself to do it, and I find it has helped a lot, after a bit of practice.
Now, I know a lot of my readers are probably "pantsers" rather than "plotters", and I understand that outlining may not be your style. Try it, but if it doesn't work for you, that's okay. Just ignore this section.
Break yourself in slowly to the habit of writing outlines and you may find it worth your while. It takes time, discipline and self-restraint. Move on from your synopsis to a rough outline of the main events of the plot. This is all that's necessary, but you may want a more detailed outline to work from, and may find yourself even going so far as scene structuring, planning each chapter, noting atmosphere, POV, plot and purpose of each scene. But remember to leave room for inspiration!
Write character sketches only if you're a fanatic. To be honest, character sketches drive me nuts. There are a whole lot of character outline templates out there, but personally, I don't care about the colour of my character's socks or the maiden name of their mother.
I don't want to be told want they're like – I want to discover what they're like by what they say, how think think and act. I want to get to know them as I write. That way, I don't find myself shocked when they suddenly step outside my perfectly-planned little box. Readers love surprises (realistic surprises).
However, I do note something down if I have written it in the story, such as if I have described a nervous tic or mother's maiden name, just so I don't contradict myself later in the story.
My character sketches go only as far as full name, age and sex, relativity to the story and goals or drives (such as in love with the hero or mad at him), and that's only on a good day. For the most part, I can't be bothered. Click here for more about character sketches
Turn off the inner editor. This is a trick taught in NaNoWriMo, and as bad as it sounds, it actually works. Often the reason our progress stalls is because we start to sensor ourselves. Gag it. Cage it. Bury it. Do anything to get rid of that editor, and just write.
Now return to your novel. You should be all right to begin afresh. Still in need of a boost? One last suggestion: Think about sub-plots. Throwing random problems at your protagonist or casting them mercilessly into a sticky situation is a great way of refreshing yourself and the reader when it's getting boring and grinding to a halt. Random as it seems, this can actually enhance your characters and plot, and if it doesn't do anything at all, it's realistic. So if your protagonist is on the road to their destination, make them fall into a snake pit or get attacked by a lion. If they're going on a picnic, make it rain.
Thanks to Ember_Rain~flea marketing for her input.