09 January 2016 by Published in: Uncategorized 17 comments

I recently reviewed Lawrence Block’s new iteration of his novel writing guide, and after finishing my WIP yesterday, was inspired enough by that book to share what passes for my approach for producing a page-turner novel.

After creating a rough outline that fleshes out my story with all the basic elements and characters (as detailed in my blog on outlining), and satisfying myself that the arcs work, I look at each chapter as a developmental editor might, and ask myself how I can make it the best in the book. While impossible to achieve, that’s a good starting point, and forces me to focus at the chapter level so there’s no filler or fluff.

When I’m evaluating a chapter, I try to ensure it contains either an action beat, a surprise, a revelation that’s key to the story, a reversal, or frames a question to which the reader is compelled to know the answer.

I often try to work in more than one of these elements. As an example, I might have the protag learn that her best friend was murdered, which posits the unspoken question, who’s the killer? I might have her make the discovery after she’s chased by a mysterious figure (action beat), demanding another few questions be answered: who’s after her, and why? And I might finally have her turn the tables on the pursuer, and have her shadow him to discover more, only to have him disappear into an unexpected location – a church, or a whorehouse, or the governor’s mansion – whatever. That would be an action beat, two burning overt questions and a subtle one (who’s the killer?), a reversal (hunted becomes hunter), ending on a surprise that frames yet more questions (why that location? What does it mean?), all in the same few pages.

For a real world example, let’s look at JET, which was written three years ago, so the technique wasn’t refined – I was basically flying by the seat of my pants, but in hindsight, I applied my process instinctively. In the prologue, we’re introduced to a bureaucrat in Belize who is walking across a plaza. He’s assassinated by a rooftop sniper, who then rushes to a waiting car. It’s obvious he’s a pro, and the only line of dialogue in the couple of pages, closes the chapter: “One down.” So what do we have there? An action beat (assassination) that raises several questions: who was the bureaucrat and what’s his significance to the story? Who is the shooter, and why did he kill the bureaucrat? Why Belize? And finally, who are the others who are targeted – as foreshadowed by that final line? That’s at least five questions in a few paragraphs, set up by a brutal execution that lets you know there’s going to be some unexpected twists ahead. The reader is compelled to keep reading if they want to learn more. Mission accomplished. The action gets their attention, but it’s the questions that drive them forward.

Now let’s take a more macro view of the story’s design. I have each act (I usually write three or four act structures) end with a major beat, where a big question is framed that’s answered in subsequent chapters. I tend to think of them as big, bigger, and biggee, on a three act structure, with the answer to the final one something the reader won’t see coming. I don’t always accomplish that lofty goal, but I shoot for it, and if possible, manage a couple of twists at the end. The more the merrier, as long as it doesn’t feel contrived. Readers are delighted by twists, but only if they’re honest, meaning if they go back and reread, it all hangs together logically and was arrived at fairly.

As I’ve written more I’ve become increasingly mindful of structure, and am convinced it’s well worth taking the time to require all chapters do as much heavy lifting as possible. If you think each through with this logic, you’ll find yourself cutting quite a few scenes that should really only be sentences , or modifying sections to increase their urgency.

Once I’ve concluded this process with the outline, I then review all the sections a final time and ask myself why anyone would have to continue after each, rather than going to bed at a sensible hour on a work night.

Note that I’m not offering suggestions on story arc, character development, description, or any of that. All are important, but this assumes you’ve already mastered sufficient craft to have those nailed. You could also use my approach when pantsing, asking yourself how to heighten the tension and raise the ante at every turn. For me, more time-consuming than outlining, but whatever works for you.

Also note that this is not a process to write a better novel, but rather how to structure a better novel so that when you write it, you do so with no meandering, the objective of each chapter clear in your mind, fleshed out with suitable hooks to keep the reader wanting to plow on with it rather than putting it aside.

I find the more I follow this process, the better my work. I’d rather know up front if I don’t have sufficient story and create a secondary or tertiary plot, than have to fluff up the page count with endless accounts of what the trees stirring in the morning breeze reminded the protag of, or spend paragraphs on the scent of jasmine on the summer wind, etc. That’s not to say you want to eliminate any lyricism to your prose, but rather you want it to be maximally engaging – a page turner. You can balance lyricism against that objective, and optimize the effectiveness of both.

I’m pretty sure this process can work for any commercial fiction, regardless of genre. Tension, suspense, urgency, reversals, all are staples in a writer’s toolkit.

Obviously, the better your craft, the less noticeable the bones of the technique are, but it’s one of the things I wish someone had explained to me when I started writing – it would have spared me a whole lot of fumbling around trying to grasp what really works. It sounds obvious, but if you write stories the reader can’t put down, your odds of making a living go up exponentially.

So there are the keys to the kingdom, free of charge. I can’t stress the difference this approach can make in crafting an un-putdownable read. Try it and see. It’s more work, but by demanding more out of every chapter, and putting each through these hoops with no exceptions, you’ll find you write a better book.

And that’s never a bad thing.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Lucian
    Sun 10th Jan 2016 at 2:56 am

    Thank You.

    Reply
  2. Sun 10th Jan 2016 at 3:59 am

    Thanks for taking the time to write this. It’s enormously helpful as I now have a new way of looking at the structure (very important word!) of each chapter.

    Of course, you know you could charge for this kind of information as so many do. Giving it away freely this way earns you a ton of respect from writers like myself who can only hope to achieve a little of your kind of success.
    Sincere thanks. You’re a good guy!

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 10th Jan 2016 at 12:54 pm

      Crap. I forgot to put the donate button on the page. Oh well.

      Those wishing to express appreciation can get one of my books. I recommend Ramsey’s Gold.

      Reply
      • Allen Williams  –  Tue 19th Jan 2016 at 12:36 am

        Ha! But, since you suggested that, and I liked JET, just picked up Ramsey’s Gold.

        Reply
  3. Sun 10th Jan 2016 at 11:22 am

    So helpful. Thanks, Russell.

    Reply
  4. Sun 10th Jan 2016 at 6:07 pm

    I like how you net it out.

    You write good.

    Reply
  5. lynda filler
    Sun 10th Jan 2016 at 6:49 pm

    Thanks, this helps lots. I’m using the Excel Spreadsheet too.

    Reply
  6. cinisajoy
    Sun 10th Jan 2016 at 8:03 pm

    Great blog. Screamed your name. 😉

    Reply
  7. Mon 11th Jan 2016 at 3:03 am

    Thanks for sharing! Great advice.

    Reply
  8. Landon Cocks
    Tue 12th Jan 2016 at 10:44 am

    1) Thanks for doing this, Russell. You’re alright.

    2) Thanks for doing this in such a simple and understandable manner.

    3) Thanks for writing a sequel to Fatal Exchange!

    Reply
  9. Peter Griffin
    Thu 14th Jan 2016 at 10:00 pm

    Great post Russell.

    Out of interest – what’s the average word count on your Jet novels. Also, what do you use to outline – just Word, or Scrivener? Do you have a useful template that you follow?

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 14th Jan 2016 at 10:43 pm

      80-85K words.

      I included a link to my outlining blog in this one, which has a sample of my spreadsheet on it. I use excel.

      Reply
  10. Tue 19th Jan 2016 at 7:58 pm

    Really nice work, Russell. Thanks for all the good information. I shared this post on my FB page so others can see it who might not stumble across it here.

    You are one gifted individual when it comes to teaching this stuff (not to mention actually doing it!).

    Reply
  11. Sun 31st Jan 2016 at 11:46 pm

    Thanks for this! I’m in the editing stage and this is a great way at trying to decide what I can cut. Each of my 3 major acts end with a pretty strong beat, but the scenes and chapters within aren’t all that powerful.

    Reply

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