The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them
by Sol Stein
A follow-up to Sol Stein's incredible book, Stein on Writing. How to Grow a Novel takes Stein's vast, multi-decade experience on publishing top-selling novels and condenses it down to 240 pages.
Stein explains that readers of fiction seek an experience different and more extreme than what they experience in their everyday life. In fiction, readers enjoy suspense, conflict, anxiety, and tension. Readers want excitement in the books they read. To this end, Stein suggests scene outlines where authors summarize: 1) How they motivate readers to have affection for the most affected character in the scene. 2) Explore the most adversarial relationship in each scene. 3) Ensure the scene's point of view is from the character that is most affected by the scene. 4) Describe action in the scene. 5) Present the scene in front of the character as "immediate scene", not as narrative summary or description. 6) Leave the reader wanting to find out what happens next. As Stein says, "Never take the reader where the reader wants to go."
As emphasized by Stein, conflict is the essence of dramatic fiction. "The engine of fiction is somebody wanting something and going out to get it." Interposed between the hero's want and achievement must be conflict, or there is no story. However, constant conflict without breaks becomes tiring. Intersperse conflict with moments of rest to give the reader variety. Use the restful bits to peak the readers' curiosity as to what comes next. The antagonists can be people, nature, or any force preventing the protagonist from reaching their goal. It is rare for authors to err on the side of too much conflict.
None of this matters without a narrative hook. The reader must be captured. An intriguing first paragraph will get the reader to read the first page. Then the first page must hold the reader's attention to get him to read a second page. By the third page the reader must have been captured by interest in a character, a situation, or the author's writing. As an author, you must manipulate the reader's emotions and you only have three pages to hook the reader.
Writerly writing "uses detail to create lifelikeness." Details enable readers to see and experience your scenes. Employ simile and metaphor, but focus on fresh visual details. Don't tell the reader what to feel. Create emotions in readers by your choice of details. Limit long descriptions. Stick to significant details. Let readers fill in the gaps with their own imagination.
"Narrative summary is telling and immediate scene is showing." Keep the story in front of the reader by using immediate scene. "If a scene is not filmable, it is not immediate." Think of plays. Plays are written in immediate scene, because of their format. Make every effort to avoid narrative summary where events are summarized instead happening in front of the reader.
Create "characters who are characters." Your readers don't want to spend time with people that they already spend time around. Initially, readers are attracted to your character's by their differentness. Readers fall in love with your characters because of the character's joys, triumphs, disappointments, and vulnerabilities. Your character must want something badly, and want it now. Nice guys bore readers. Protagonists must have faults, in addition to their strengths. A mix of zeal, extraordinary ability, and vulnerability bring your character to life. Choose one trait, like Hoff'a elbowing, that characterizes the protagonist, and that they do repeatedly throughout the story. The trait must be meaningful to the character, even if only subconsciosly. Instill the reader with compassion for the character by showing a failure brought on by the character's vulnerability. The reader wants the character to succeed, but watches as his unique weakness prevents the needed success. Good sources of colorful characters are children's books. Stein points out, you can spruce up a dull character by giving him a believable, attention-grabbing secret, or placing something in his pocket that embarrasses him.
When creating a plot, Stein suggests starting with a high concept, also known as a handle. This is a two or three sentence summary of the story. The handle should be suitable for marketing and pitching the novel. After creation of the handle, design the plot of the story by assembling scenes that flesh out the story. Stein separates the concept of story and plot by referring to the story as the overall concept of the novel and plot as the arrangement of the scenes. Every scene should move the story toward its conclusion.
Stein states, "The main purpose of dialog is to reveal character and to move a story along," Creating oblique dialog increases tension. The best dialog is confrontational and/or adversarial. Dialog never reads like real conversations. Real conversations are boring. Increase tension in dialogs by use of differing scripts (intentions), impatience, and misunderstandings.
A lot of information from Stein's first writing book is duplicated in How to Grow a Novel. However, there is enough new material, and material that is tailored for novelists, that it is worth a read. A warning though: Some of the material is a bit obtuse if you haven't read his first writing book, Stein on Writing.