So let’s assume you’ve written fifty short stories and maybe a novella or a novelette, and you decide you want to write a full-length novel. Part 1 went into some basic considerations:
1. Consider whether you really want to write a novel;
2. Write to be read, i.e., hook the reader and don’t let go for a minute;
3. Make the hero and his story go somewhere, physically and mentally.
Although you can often, perhaps usually, write short fiction without an outline other than a plan in your head about how the piece is going to end. Novels are different. Winging it is risky. You may forget subplot threads, leaving them unresolved. Readers will castigate you. You may get a third of the way into the book and suddenly hit a brick wall–you don’t know where to go next, you have a dozen or more possible ways to go and something is wrong with every one of them and you become indecisive and writer’s block grips you in its heavy, dark blue fist and you are done. That’s no fun.
Or maybe you escape from that and finish another third of the book, then realize the ending you planned (you did plan how to end before you started didn’t you?) won’t work with the characters you now have on your hands. The clever plot twists and turns you created to arrive at that wonderful ending must be abandoned. “Nusmunay Wigglesworth,” your charismatic Anglo-Indian philanthropist who mentors the hero from Chapter 42 onward, is now unnecessary and must be deleted. Or you can kill him off. (Beware of the latter course. Readers will not like you if you kill their favorite characters off! Let those with two ‘R’s for their middle initials pay heed!) You’ve written yourself into a dead end.
As it says in the ancient Code of Abibarshim: “VII. He who designeth without a plan is like he who rusheth forth into darkness without a torch. Rush not ere thou knowest whither, for there are many snares and pitfalls in the dark, and wild beasts to reach up and bit thine ass or camel on the path named Critical.”
Okay. Create an outline for your book. If you loathe, detest, abhor, abominate and get St. Vitus dance from outlining. at least make a timeline.
But outlining is not where you start. Once you’ve made the decision to become a novelist, you need to have something to say. Yes, novels are not just a series of incidents plunked down end-to-end between a prologue and “The End.” They must contain something besides the text and the plot and characters. They must have a message. Not a Message, with a capital ‘m,’ that will change the course of history and make your name forever mentioned in the same breath as Wilde, Dickens, Tolstoy, and McGonigle.
THEME: A single statement or question about the human condition that is explored by the work from all sides.
Many writers (too many, perhaps) put off deciding on their theme until they’ve already written the book, and then they stand back and scratch their buns and say, “Hmm. What’s my theme? I guess this book is about indecision. There are a lot of places where my hero is indecisive. Yeah, ‘Indecision is a Bad Thing,’ that’s my theme. Or maybe it’s precipitousness…” Then they go back and add a bunch more instances of inability to decide. They make the hero indecisive when he has his Save the Cat Moment. The villain is indecisive, and the horse he came in on. The dog, too.
Let’s say you have a legitimate theme, Judgmentalism can lead to Evil. Note that it’s not “Being judgmental is bad.” That’s one-sided, hence didactic. Didactic works rarely have anything to say beyond “Me, too!” Imagine Patton as a monotonic movie saying only “War sucks!” without showing Patton’s genuine enthusiasm for conflict? (Imagine winning WWII without generals who mostly enjoyed their craft.)
Exploring a theme from all sides gives a rich, nuanced novel, one that will last. You don’t, for example, need to have scenes showing judgment of others as entirely good, merely to show why people become that way, why they are driven to it. You can have a character who loves being judgmental and is unapologetic about it: “Judgmental? Some people say I am, but I’ve merely been given a gift for criticism. I’m good at it, and I believe in using my gift.”
Next you need characters and story, ones that provides maximum opportunities to display (somewhat subtly) your theme. In some cases, your theme itself will narrow down the possible stories quite drastically. “War sucks,” pretty much requires a war picture/novel, so that’s your story. “Judgmentalism leads to Evil” is not that story-restrictive, since people of all occupations can fit that theme. Some vocations, though, will fit it better than most, so for my book about Judgmentalism, I’m going to grab the other handle, character, and make my protagonist a priest, one who is concerned daily about moral issues, especially in other people. I’ll give him nuance via frequent interior dialogue about his own sinfulness. Get the idea? I hope you do. The priest’s story can be about topical issues, ones I need not list here, but ones that involve tons and tons of conflict. Muhahaha! Conflict! I love it. God help me I do love it so.
Once you have a story, populate it with people who will create the best conflict, who best fit the events therein. Make your characters not merely diverse (the obvious approach, and one that cliches must follow as the night the day), but with conflicting traits. An agnostic neatnik must be set opposite a Christian clutterer, and so on. Characters’ opinions that touch the theme must be varied, too.
This is just a starting point. The actuality is that your story and characters and theme will interact as the novel develops, each influencing the other. I’m not talking about character arc, but about how your characters turn into someone else when exposed to the world of the story. Obviously, they will also change from start to finish, but that’s a topic for another time.