Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Story Behind the Story: Finding the Shape of a Novel

by Sandra Parshall

This is one in a series of occasional posts about the mechanics of the novel-writing process.

I’ve always resisted crime fiction formulas – first plot point here, drop a second body on page XX, etc. – but my books all seem to take on the same shape naturally, without a lot of conscious thought. It’s not so much a formula as a design I find appealing as both a writer and reader.

It looks a lot like a snake that has recently downed a hefty meal. Apologies to all of you who just winced and exclaimed “Yuck!” But the comparison is apt.

The book I’m writing now, sixth in the Rachel Goddard series, is assuming that familiar shape. As always, I will find plenty of room within it for sharp turns in unexpected directions, but basically, it’s a stuffed snake.

As a reader, I want a crime story to get off to a fast start. For some writers, I may be willing to hang in there, but in most cases I’ll abandon a book rather than wait fifty pages for something to happen. With my own books, I try not to test readers’ patience with too much set-up material. I like to kill off the victim in the first chapter. My first book, The Heat of the Moon, isn’t a murder mystery, so this doesn’t apply, but I did throw readers into Rachel’s emotional turmoil as quickly as I could. In Disturbing the Dead, the first victim has been missing for ten years, but I open the first chapter in the middle of a search for her scattered bones on a mountaintop. In subsequent books, someone turns up dead in the first chapters.

That’s the big plot point, the inciting incident, the event that sets the plot in motion. After that swift, shocking bite at the beginning, I have to hold onto readers, make them care enough to stick around.

The second chapter opens out the story a bit, brings in additional characters, and begins to show the effect of the crime on people around the victim.

I’m always a bit baffled when writers moan about the “middle muddle” in their books, because I believe the middle is where all the best stuff should happen. That’s when the story balloons like a snake’s midsection after a large meal.

The middle of my books is where both Tom and Rachel dig around in the lives of other characters, uncovering nasty secrets that may or may not have a bearing on the plot, getting to know aspects of people they haven’t seen before, bringing motives into focus. A murder can have wide-reaching consequences. A murder changes the lives of those left behind, whether they’re connected to the victim or the killer. All of this comes to light in the middle of a book. It could turn into a muddle if revelations aren’t carefully controlled, but if information is carefully rationed, the result is suspense.

I someyimes find it necessary to kill off another character about three-quarters of the way through the book. If I choose to do this, the killing must be meaningful, it must increase suspense and tension, not merely add to the bulge of baffling information. It has to push the story toward its conclusion.

A snake devouring a meal might not be the most pleasant mental image, but that’s what I see when I visualize the shape of my story.

Can you see the underlying shapes of novels you’ve read (or written)? Name your favorite crime novel and tell me what you see when you consider its shape.


Sheila Connolly said...

I agree that it's important to put the body, or whatever trigger event you're using, up front, to draw the reader in.

But if we're writing series, our ongoing readers know us, know our genre, know our characters, and know that there will be a body somewhere. Do we get a dispensation?

My middles scare me, not because they're confused, but because I usually know the beginning and the end, and I worry that I have enough to say to fill that big empty space between. (One chapter at a time is usually the answer.)

Sandra Parshall said...

You've done very well so far, Sheila. You're a sure-footed story-teller.

Terry Shames said...

I agree with Sheila. If I know I'm reading a mystery, I know somewhere there will be a body. In DARE ME, by Meg Abbott there is no body for a long time, but the tension keeps being ratcheted up. That's the main point--keep your readers alarmed.

Sandra Parshall said...

DARE ME isn't really a mystery -- the death isn't the heart of the story. I think it's literary fiction, in the best sense. A deep dive into the lives of the characters. The whole point of the story is to lay bare the relationships between the characters and the way they contribute to each other's destruction. You'll find all that n a good mystery, but a mystery puts the question of whodunit up front, and the pursuit of the killer drives the plot. Like Laura Lippmann, Megan is getting away from mystery and into literary fiction that might happen to have crime in it at some point.

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