Once you have drafted your novel and and received feedback on it, there are bound to be issues that you wish you’d thought about more before you began. Of course, so much of a story develops in the process of writing it, but there are exercises worth doing before you start to help clarify the story in your mind. Here are five ideas from myself and BPA’s editors.
Imagine Your Novel as a Film
Films don’t leave much to the imagination, and one issue many prose writers have is leaving too much to the imagination. Novels need images, mood and a clear story arc, and thinking of your story as a film can help with these things.
Cast your lead characters. This can help you think about the specific appearance and mannerisms you want your characters to have and save you from ‘he had blue eyes and brown hair’ territory. Of course, you’ll want to combine details from different sources; Benedict Cumberbatch’s long cheeks, your uncle’s square hairline and the fast but stunted speech of Hermione in the Harry Potter films, for example, but casting your leads is a good place to start.
Choose the soundtrack. I like to decide what song would be playing in key scenes of my story. I’ll often play the song on repeat while drafting to help me get into the right mood and achieve the desired tone.
Write the tagline? Film taglines are often a bit cheesy, but they do a good job of getting across why you should watch the movie; they reveal the tone and the emotional hook. Shortlist recently posted their forty favourite taglines, which included Alien: ‘In space no one can hear you scream’, The 40-Year-Old Virgin: ‘The longer you wait, the harder it gets’, and The Social Network: ‘You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies’. Think about your story’s core conflict and what you want the reader to be feeling as they read, then write a tagline and come back to it when you lose sight of why people will want to read your work.
Free Write Your Character’s Motivation
BPA editor Christian Livermore recently read my work-in-progress and felt the protagonist’s motivations were unclear. In the romantic arc of the novel, she couldn’t see what was driving the character to pursue the relationship she did, and so the story’s progression wasn’t believable.
Christian suggested I do some free writing. She told me to write at the top of a blank page, ‘Why did you decide to go out with him?’ and reply from the perspective of my main character. I was able to track her motivations through the course of the novel, and in my next edit I put these motivations on the page. I did this by adding internal thoughts or telling details, and in some places, I changed the course of action so her behaviour fit her motivation.
For you, the question might be ‘Why did you decide to uncover the mystery?’ or ‘Why did you decide to get back in touch with your mother?’ When Günter Grass was working on The Tin Drum, the question might have been to Oskar: ‘Why did you want to stop growing?’ Whatever the protagonist’s goal is, that’s where the motivation is important, and the reader needs a sense of it to feel invested in the narrative.
When you write the reply, don’t overthink it. The idea of free writing is that your pen keeps moving so you can access ideas without your inner editor’s involvement. There is no right structure. You might find your protagonist waffles on about their choices in the novel’s climax before revealing the core motivation that’s been there the whole time. Relax and let the words come.
“The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon.” — Robert Cormier
Walk Your Settings
Good writing brings a scene to life in the reader’s mind and the setting is key to this. Good writing is detailed and specific, and the best way to find specific details to include is to go to the places your characters will go. Take a notepad or your phone and make notes about the scenery, the people, the weather, the mood, the sounds, the smells and the way that you feel. Only a small selection of these notes will make it into the novel, but your prose will come to life because you’ve considered the location from every angle and have lived it.
My novel mostly includes locations I’ve visited already – why make it harder for yourself? – but in everyday life, we’re too focused on our own goals to take in our surroundings. It was important for me to visit these places intentionally and be slow.
Write a Page in a Different Tense and POV
Most writers will know pretty early on which POV they want to write in, either because it’s their go-to or because it suits the story they’re telling. The perspective will sway the tone of your novel, so writing a page in a different POV can open up the story and help you see it from a different angle.
If you’re planning to write a third person, past tense narration, choose a key scene from your novel and try writing it in first person, present tense. You’ll get insights into the way the protagonist thinks and the way the setting feels. If you’re planning a first person narration, try an omniscient POV to get some perspective on your protagonist and view the scene from above. You might also want to write a page from the perspective of a supporting character so they become whole as a person in your mind.
Of course, another benefit to this exercise is that you might realise a different POV is worth considering after all.
“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”— Wayne Dyer
Create Timelines of Your Characters’ Lives
In our previous blog post, Common Mistakes Writers Make, BPA’s Oliver James suggested creating timelines to get to know your characters better.
‘Your character is an iceberg, and it’s your job to see the whole structure, not just the tip poking out. You should write a detailed timeline of their life and flesh it out with important moments that really shaped them. Their first kiss, first major break up, first job. Think of your own life. When you scroll back through the years, which events stand out as being really important and formative? List them. Could you come up with as many for your protagonist? In my experience, the chances are you couldn’t.’
You don’t need to include the events of your timeline as flashbacks in your novel, but the events of a character’s past life should appear naturally in their thoughts and dialogue, as they would in real life. More importantly, these events will affect their behaviour. Your characters will seem more rounded if their actions suggest a personality shaped by experience.
Writing is a process, and you’ll need to return to these exercises and others throughout the drafting process, but I hope you will find they enable you to launch into a first draft with a level of confidence. It often takes a second pair of eyes to spot when a character’s motivation is unclear, a setting feels static, or the mood needs establishing. When you’ve reached that stage, get in touch with us, and we can help you move forwards.