Structuring Your Novel: The Theme

There is no right way or wrong way to write a novel. But, without structure, the story, which in the final analysis, is all that counts, can wind up like a series of back roads, cross roads, farm to market roads, and expressways all headed wide open and belly flat for nowhere – not quite sure if they will ever find it or what they’ll do once they arrive. I know. I’ve read some of the books. I’m sure you have, too.

Individual authors have their own style. They have their own distinctive ways to write a sentence, twist a plot, build a scene, develop characters, and throw them into the middle of conflict and pathos.

Powerful Movie. Simple theme.

They can make us laugh. They can make us cry. But once those final words are read, the Kindle is turned off, the lights are out, and the story begins growing cold, are readers glad they took their valuable time to make the journey? Or did they abandon ship somewhere between the introduction and the denouement? For ninety-nine cents a book, there’s no temptation to stick with a bad story for very long.

Some authors can’t wait to get to the finish line. Some are in no hurry and aren’t really concerned if they never finish. Some are disciplined. Some are haphazard, and their story becomes a twisted web that’s better off left twisted and dangling in the wind. Some get bogged down with writer’s block and worry more about technique and punctuation than where their characters are desperately trying to take them.

I write my opening scene and my closing scene at the same time. That becomes my roadmap. It’s like taking a vacation. I know from where I’m leaving, and I know where I’m going, but I have no idea where the trip will take me or who I will meet along the way.

My wife Linda has decided to write her first novel, a nice cozy little mystery.  She is so maniacally methodical that she may or may not have driven me crazy by the time her own personal Miss Marple stands up and solves the crime. She’s writing character sketches. She is writing about each of her locations the way a travel writer covers a new destination. She will build storyboards. She will shuffle them around and then around again. She will find each piece of the puzzle and have them all in place before she ever jots down the first word.

As my friend and novelist Stephen Woodfin tells her, “If you know the whole story before you begin, what’s the fun of writing it?”

He prefers the mystery of it all.

When Woodfin writes, he sits down, rolls up his sleeves, narrows his eyes, grits his teeth, and hits the ground running like a locomotive on a downhill grind.  He doesn’t know where he’s going, and he doesn’t care. And if he slows down long enough to take a deep breath and feels like there’s a break in the action, he brings on a man with a loaded gun and, chances are, he shoots somebody. Woodfin is like the Confederate general on a mountain in Georgia. He was told, “There are Yankees in front of us, behind us, and on every side of us. What should be we do?” The general shrugged and said, “Fight ‘em.” Woodfin fights ‘em every day of his life.

Gripping movie. Simple theme.

The style and labor of creating and writing a novel is of no consequence.

The novel itself is.

You may be one of the fortunate ones who build structure into your story as you go along. But don’t bet on it. Real structure comes with the re-writes after you have given yourself enough time to read through the manuscript, discover the holes you have left in the plot, and we all leave too many holes, and begin going back to rearrange certain scenes and add the finishing touches.

One of my friends is Ken Wyatt, a great Western artist who painted the cover of my book: XIT: The American Cowboy.  He once told me, “I paint pictures for one reason: So I can go back and put in the highlights. The highlights make the difference. The highlights, or lack of them, are what makes a painting great or tossed aside, easily forgotten, and, what’s worse, never bought.”

The final structure of a novel comes when you begin adding the highlights.

During the next few months, on a weekly basis, I will be discussing the key points for structuring a novel. The ideas aren’t mine alone. I have had the good fortune of working with some great novelists and screenwriters in my time. They throw around ideas. I steal what they say.

These successful and professional writers know that novels or movie scripts aren’t merely scattered words on a page. Each word has a reason for being there. And so does each page.

Let’s take the first fifteen pages of your novel. When you write the opening image or scene – whether it’s a sentence, a paragraph, a page, or a chapter – you are setting the tone, mood, style, and scope of the book. It’s the time you introduce the main character and set the stage for every episode or incident that eventually happens.

This is the hook. This is the grabber. These are the words that give readers a reason and an urgency to move ahead and learn what’s happening, who’s causing it, who’s threatened by it, who’s damaged or hurt by it, who can step forward and make the demons, the bad guys, the misfits, and the broken hearts go away.

By page fifteen or twenty, it is critical to have established the theme of the novel. Don’t even launch into a book unless you have already hammered out the theme in your mind. Even Stephen Woodfin knows his theme. The rest will come as a surprise to him, but he knows the theme when it begins. He should. It’s only a sentence.

You should be able to tell your whole novel in a single sentence that we call the log line. If you can’t, then you don’t have a novel. Take Nevil Shute’s heart-wrenching book, On the Beach. The theme would have been: After the world is destroyed by a nuclear war, the captain and crew of an American submarine begin a lonely and haunting search to determine if they are the last survivors.

Or take John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. The log line might read: A struggling young lawyer in a small and prejudicial Mississippi town battles all odds to defend a black man who knows from the beginning that he will never receive a fair trial and stands no chance in a court of law that wants to convict him of rape.

The plot may be complex. The characters may and should be flawed and complex. But the theme is simple. The good ones always are. The theme in those first fifteen pages must be reach out and intrigue the readers, but it doesn’t have to be stated in bold and uncertain terms. Don’t hit them between the eyes with the obvious. Yet, it is critical for them to have a clear understanding of what the book is about. You can drop the theme into a passage of dialogue or conversation, or maybe even with an offhanded remark or a casual observation.

“Will you be here long?” he asked.

“It depends on what I find,” she said.

He smiled. “What are you looking for?” he asked.

She smiled. “It depends on what I find,” she said.

Nothing is obvious. Everything is implied. But suddenly there’s a touch of mystery in the air. What is she looking for, and will he be able to help her find it? Or does it exist at all. Stay tuned. By page three hundred and four, you may have an answer.

Those first fifteen pages form the foundation. Within them, you provide the location, the hero or heroine, and the sense of foreboding, the longing of love lost or thrown away, or a beckoning sense of mystery, fear, and uncertainty that will affect both the readers and the characters as they move through the story. The genre is of no consequence. The structure always remains the same.

Next time, we’ll discuss what happens between pages three and fifty. Those are the crucial pages that can make or break a novel.

 

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  • Caleb, thanks for mentioning my randomness in this piece. For me, I have a broad sense of where the story will go when I begin, but I don’t have any preconceived notions of how I will get there. If the theme is “they who live by the sword shall die by the sword,” that tells me a lot about how things have to develop and wind down. If the theme is “love is the greatest power,” then I know that regardless of what happens to my hero, he will act so as to remain true to that theme. If he strays, he will come back to that benchmark.

    And, yes, the fun of writing for me is the process of discovery. I know when I start to write even one scene, I will find out something new, face an unexpected challenge, find a joke, or something. It never fails. I read an interview of James Lee Burke about a year ago. He said that he starts each writing day with two scenes, and only two scenes, in mind. When he writes those, he starts the next day with two more scenes, and so forth until he reaches the end. I know if I have two scenes in mind, the next two will come along just in time.

    This also raises the question for writers: When do they discover the logline? Do they write it down before they write the first word of the manuscript, or do they discover it in the process of the writing the book?

  • Christina Carson

    I’m in the Stephen Woodfin group. I’d be bored to death if I had nay idea how the story was going to pan out. I always write to explore a topic I’d like to understand more fully. So I too can’t know where the story is going or how it will get there until after the fact. Interesting series you’ve comeup with,Caleb.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Stephen: You and your readers are just alike. Neither of you can wait to find out who did it and why. Such is the joy of writing.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Christina: You may explore a story from all sides and points of view in your mind, but by the time your story hits the page, it is distilled down into a sharp focus that impacts the reader for a long time. Most novels are read and forgotten. Your’s aren’t. They hang around for a while. You have quite a gift.

  • Caleb, I find myself somewhere between you, Stephen, and Linda. I know where I’ll start, and where I want it to end. However, I delight in the unexpected deviations my characters like to take along the way. The historical aspects make me scrutinize the details. As I normally write historical fiction, my current project in creative non-fiction constrains my spontaneity a bit. I look forward to your next post in this series.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Lana: Thanks for your comment. That’s the beauty of writing. We all have a different roadmap. And we all have a different destination. And no two of us would ever arrive there with the same characters to accompany us along the way.

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