I’m one of those writers who reckons you can’t write the first sentence of a novel until you know the last. The first line, I think, should say something (on some level) about what’s to come. I have to know where a story’s headed before my fingers hit the keyboard. After all, how can you build a house without knowing what it’s going to look like? You just can’t start nailing one piece of timber to the next and hope for the best. It will topple over in a heap. But some writers, I know, are comfortable with that. If it falls over, they just start again. Or build a different house. Some want the house to build itself naturally, like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, and let it all unfold in its own way.
I’m not one of those people. I’m a planner. And that’s not to say that other ways of approaching writing aren’t as good. However you get to the end, works. Just ask the likes of Toni Jordan and Liane Moriarty, who are not planners. For me, it’s about saving time. I like to do a lot of the thinking and daydreaming upfront. I like to have the destination in mind, even if I’m not totally clear about the roads I’ll take to get there.
The art of fiction
Do you ever read a passage in a book or watch a scene in a film and wonder what the point of it is? How does it fit into the overall story? It could be that the writer’s not following a clear pattern of cause and effect: one action/event logically leading to the next. Sometimes the point of a scene only becomes clear later in the book/film, but sometimes it never does, and that, for me, is a problem. If it doesn’t add to the story (or, to look at it another way, inform the theme), it should end up with red pencil lines through it or be left on the cutting room floor.
I love this quote from The Art of Fiction by John Gardner: “Every scene has to justify some later action, show some basis of motivation, or reveal some aspect of character without which the projected climax of the action would not seem credible” [page 127]
Words to write by.
Some years ago I did a screenwriting course over the summer. I had an itch to learn something new and to exercise my creative brain in a different way. To teach us about character, the course leader showed us the opening scene from Rain Man, the 1988 film starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. In this first scene, we meet Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise), a luxury-car importer whose had some cars held back by customs because they didn’t pass muster. The buyers are breathing down his neck, plus he needs to have the cars released because he’s in debt and desperately needs the money. This opening scene tells us all we need to know about Charlie – that he’s a swindler – but, most importantly, that he’s a person who likes to be in control.
As the film progresses, Charlie meets his long-lost older brother, an autistic savant played by Dustin Hoffman. (Charlie only finds out about his brother because their father dies and he leaves the bulk of his estate to his first-born instead of Charlie). Dustin’s character, Raymond, is unpredictable. But Charlie needs Raymond on his side if he’s got any chance of taking over management of his brother’s sizable inheritance. So Charlie is thrust into a situation he can’t control, looking after a person he can’t fathom.
Once you know where the story’s going, the first scene makes a lot more sense. It sets up the rest of the film. How could the writer have come up with that scene if he didn’t know what was to come? Knowing where you’re going gives you a place to start.
Theme in YA
I love theme and foreshadowing and symbolism – all those boring things you had to recognise in the books you read in high school.
Theme is particularly important to me because I tend to concentrate on internal journeys over external ones. That’s one of the big differences I find between middle grade and young adult fiction: MG often favours a character’s external journey, while YA tends to lean more heavily on the internal shift. Internal conflicts are where it’s at for me. What’s more interesting to read about than the human heart in conflict with itself?*
Theme is important for readers as well, even if they don’t realise it. It brings a work together; it makes it feel like everything belongs and that it’s a whole unit. And that makes it satisfying to read. A world is created and everything fits neatly into that world, making it feel more real.
The first half of This Thing of Darkness is full of prison-related motifs and imagery (Dean’s clothes, the bird in the cage, Dean standing behind a fence with ‘the dull black bars slicing him in three vertical strips’), but the reader wouldn’t make the connection unless they knew what was coming. The themes of the Shakespeare play the characters are studying in school, The Tempest, directly tie in with the novel’s themes: isolation, nature versus nurture, father–daughter relationships, forgiveness. The themes in Twelve Angry Jurors, the school production, also tie in: justice, certainty and doubt, one against many, prejudice versus sympathies. Nothing random.
More sex, please
‘Gratuitous’ is a word we often hear in connection with violence or sex in a film or book. Why is it there? If it’s only there for shock value or because your publisher said, ‘This book needs more sex’, it has no place.
I try to ensure there is nothing gratuitous in my work. If I’m going to mention that my protagonist is wearing a green skirt, I need a reason to choose this particular detail to reveal over others. Colours are hugely symbolic. Green is often associated with envy. Blue can relate to depression. Yellow is a happy colour that can evoke feelings of friendship (think yellow roses). Red is a hot colour that makes me think of fire (think of the ‘red room’ at the beginning of Jane Eyre). Good film directors understand the visual impact that colour has on the tone of a film, but this can also apply to novels.
The weather can also greatly influence tone. I won’t make it rain in a story unless it has something to do with the mood of the scene or of my point-of-view character. Again, nothing random.
Instinct versus intent
Sometimes novelists write to a theme instinctively; it’s their subconscious at work. Sometimes a writer won’t know what their theme is until they’ve finished their first draft. I usually know from the beginning, or think I do, because sometimes it will change or I’ll realise after reading it (or after someone else reads it) that it wasn’t what I thought. But however the writer gets there, I think it’s important to acknowledge it and, preferably, write it down. Having it vaguely swimming around your head is better than nothing, but writing it down solidifies it. It helps crystallise it in your mind. The same can be said of plot. The simpler you can make it in your mind, the easier it will be to write a cohesive story.
Writing down your theme or premise can be in the form of an elevator pitch (one sentence that summaries your manuscript) or as a short synopsis (a few sentences that covers the character’s motivation/goal and the things that’s getting in the way of achieving it (the obstacle)). For marketing purposes, you’ll have to write both at some point anyway. Best to do it early, I say. Both will help clarify the story in your mind.
This clarity of theme also helps immeasurably during the editing process. Having a clear vision of your purpose or theme helps illuminate what should stay in and what can be tossed out. If a scene/character/plot point/subplot doesn’t serve your theme, it doesn’t belong in your manuscript. File it away for another project – it’s amazing the way your brain finds a place for great ideas when you’re conjuring up other projects.
* This is beautiful, but I can’t take credit for it. The novelist William Faulkner also said something along these lines.