Structuring a Novel Part 6: The Backbone

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Structuring a Novel: The Backbone

Lesson 6

Recap:  Within the first 15 pages, you have set the hook and stated the theme. Within the first 50 pages, you have established the plot and introduced the primary characters, complete with flaws. Between pages 36 and 50, you have provided the hero and the character with a life changing moment, which will change the direction of the novel. Between pages 50 and 75, the hero determines what needs to be done and makes the definite decision and commitment to accomplish it, regardless of the odds. Beginning on page 90, you begin the secondary story and the sub-plot, introducing your cast of offbeat characters necessary to carry the storyline forward.

 Now you can relax and have a good time. In a novel, it’s show time. The real fun and games are beginning to thread their way through your story. Until this point, you have doggedly built the foundation and the framework for the book. That may have even been a chore from time to time. Or maybe you enjoyed every minute of it. Regardless, the time has come at last for you to start adding the highlights, stitching together the scenes that will be the most memorable ones you write. A few tears. A little laughter. The discovery of pain, loss, and love. Hangovers of guilt, salvation, and redemption. A bullet to the forehead. Don’t worry about a dead man or a woman on the run. It’s all in good fun.

You have given your readers the promise.

You have solidly nailed together the original premise.

From pages 90 to 170 or so, you bring touches of heart and the soul into the novel. Let’s take a look at a few of my most memorable books for inspiration. Just what did happen during these critical pages that turned the plot upside down?

In The Guns of Navarone, the force of saboteurs landed, began climbing the vertical wall of cliffs that were impossible to scale, and working their way into position to destroy the German guns. They had to fight every step of the way, even when they were betrayed by one of the sympathizers who had been waiting for them. The big war became a little war as they battled from town to town and on toward the guns.

In On The Beach, the last survivors of a nuclear holocaust that destroyed the world during World War III remain in Australia. But death is on the way. The population is given suicide pills to take when the wind brings radiation ashore. A faint Morse code is detected coming from a telegraph machine on the coast of America. A submarine captain says goodbye to his friends, knowing he will probably never see them again, and sets sail to San Diego to determine if others may have survived the attack. He prays that his wife and children in the United States are alive although, in his heart, he knows better. These pages encompass the search and the disappointments he encounters in his quest.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, attorney Atticus Finch battles years of prejudice and racial hatred in a small Southern town to defend a black man who has been accused of raping a white woman. He has to withstand an assault on his own integrity as he investigates the alleged rape, uncovers those who are lying about what happened and goes to trial. These are the pages where he dares to defy the powers of the town in an effort to win a case that seems virtually impossible for him to win.

In Grapes of Wrath, the Oakies, who are driven by desperation by the economic woes of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, make the long, precarious journey to the promised land of California where they hope to find work in the fields. The road West is saturated with others who are searching for land, dignity, and a future. The roadside camps are filled with stories of those gone before them, of new loves and relationships, of fights and the struggle to go on regardless of the consequences they face. There are wins and losses along the way, but those who give up know they have no chance at all.

If you look at movies, the backbone of the story is built when Bruce Willis outwits the terrorists in Die Hard, when the King of England learns to speak properly in The King’s Speech, when Tobey Maguire tries out his super powers in Spiderman, when Jim Carrey walks around the city and acts like God in Bruce Almighty, when Jason Bourne runs circles around the CIA while looking for the bad guys in The Bourne Trilogy, wondering who the bad guys really are because both sides want him dead. It’s Lee Marvin training the deadly military convicts in The Dirty Dozen. It’s the band of over-the-hill losers learning to get along, adapt to a new culture, and defeating their own fears and self-doubts in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It’s James Bond knocking off one bad guy after another and making love to every beautiful woman who gets in his way as he saves the world from whatever terrorist plot an evil villain has concocted to quench his thirst for power and wealth.

As you move through the fun and games of the novel, you reach the mid point somewhere between pages 150 and 170, depending on the length of the book.

You have one of two choices to make.

The hero is on top of the world. Everything he or she touches turns to gold. Every decision has been the right one. The love of his life, in the sub-plot, is absolutely perfect. He knows who the villain is. He’s within reach of the proof he needs to convict the bad guy. The gunshot missed. He’s still alive. Nothing can go wrong.

Wrong.

Now comes the fall. Because of some key incident, birthed in your imagination, the hero tumbles off the top of the mountain and hits rock bottom. It is sudden. It is totally unexpected. It is painful. The love of his life walks out of his life. His key witness comes up dead or missing. He wakes up one morning in jail, or maybe he is kidnapped, bound, gagged, and thrown in the hull of a slow boat to China. Whatever, his legs have been cut out from under him, and he feels as though he is doomed.

Or, here’s the second choice.

The hero’s world has already crumbled around him. Everything he touches turns to trash. Every decision has been the wrong one. He finds the love of his life in bed with his partner. Every clue he finds only leads him to another clue, and now he has run out of clues. The gunshot hit him. He may be dead by morning. Nothing has gone right. He feels like a failure.

Give the hero hope.

Now begins the long, arduous climb back up the mountain. Because of some key incident, birthed in your imagination, the hero finally sees the light at the end of the tunnel. It may not be sudden, but it is totally unexpected. In his sorrow, he finds the girl who is smart and beautiful and willing to help him out of a jam. She may even be the emergency room nurse who takes a bullet out of his back. He uncovers a witness he did not know existed. The slow boat to China runs aground, and he is freed in the turmoil and confusion, grabbing a lifeboat and heading back to shore. Whatever, he knows he has a fighting chance, and that’s all he needs. He’s back on his feet, on the mend, and ready to hit the ground running hard.

Regardless of the choice you make, the story can only get better as it races forward. The incident that threw the hero into a tailspin suddenly changes the entire dynamics of the novel. When the hero is down and out, your readers have someone they can cheer for and give their total backing.

And whether the hero starts out on top of the mountain and falls, or starts at the bottom in the midst of failure and ruin, he has been down and out.

He or she has some place to go. All you have to do is open the door to the remainder of the novel and duck as they run past.

The characters know where they’re going.

And they know why they’re going.

And they’ll know it all long before you do

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  • If you didn’t know where your characters are going, and want to go there with them, you’d never start writing their story. You hope other readers will have the same want you do, and follow along, because it’s going to be a heck of a lot of work to get there – but it’s worth the prize.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Unfortunately for me, Alicia, just when I get comfortable with my stories, they take another fork in the road, and I have to run to catch up.

      • That is because, Dear Sir, you are a pantser extraordinaire. It comes at a cost.

        Me, I just have to figure out why they are going where I’ve already decided they’re going – so that it seems motivated when they do. But then I’m a plotter – and a control freak.

        And we’re all writers!

        • Caleb Pirtle

          And that’s why, Alicia, you can give us all the same plot, the same characters, the same idea, and the same story, and none of us would write the same novel.

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