JSB: The Three Rules for Writing A Novel – Part I
It was Somerset Maugham who famously stated, "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." This is oft quoted in writing classes to give the huddled masses comfort as they approach the mysterious alchemy that is fiction writing.
Well, one rule for the writer of novels might be to unleash a sort of aggressive optimism. In that spirit, I take on ol' Somerset and offer three rules. These are subjective, of course, and may be broken at one's will (though perhaps at one's peril). And I'm cheating just a bit because Mr. Maugham (author of one of my favorite novels, The Razor's Edge) no doubt had in mind the METHOD of producing a successful book. There are without doubt many roads to the same location.
What I will suggest here are the three essentials a novel must have to work. For me at least.
I am taking my three rules from the credo of one of may favorite writers, John D. MacDonald. JDM wrote a series of amazingly good (and diverse) paperbacks in the 50's, then created one of the all time great series characters, Travis McGee. His output was prodigious, but his essentials remained the same.
Here is number one.
"First, there has to be a strong sense of story. I want to be intrigued by wondering what is going to happen next. I want the people that I read about to be in difficulties--emotional, moral, spiritual, whatever, and I want to live with them while they're finding their way out of these difficulties."
Notice what JDM meant by story. The reader has to wonder what is going to happen next. To PEOPLE. That creates the page turning effect, and it applies not just to commercial fiction, but literary as well. All the wondrous prose in the world, without character bonding, will only engage me for two or three pages. Then I start to wonder if the effort is going to be worth it.
Characters we connect with somehow, in terrible trouble. And the stuff that happens to them. This is the essence of the first rule. Leave out the people-trouble-factor, and you lose readers.
Case in point. The Stones of Summer by Dow Mossman (the subject of a film all writers should see, The Stone Reader. Rent it but DON'T READ ANYTHING ABOUT IT. IT'S BEST IF YOU WATCH IT NOT KNOWING A THING!) This colossal novel from the early 70's was praised in the New York Times as being on a level with Pynchon and Barth. It did not sell well and was long out of print, until the film came out and Barnes & Noble reissued it.
I read most of it, and it is an amazing thing. Each page of this tome could be read alone, as if it were a prose poem. The language is amazing, incredible, mind bending.
But the story? I wasn't yearning to find out what happened next. Because I wasn't bonded to the characters, didn't buy into their difficulties, either on the inside or the outside. In short, these weren't people I wanted to live with through the story.
In my book on writing and my writing classes, I constantly emphasize Hitchcock's Axiom: "A great story is life, with the dull parts taken out."
No trouble for intriguing people = dull.
So we might sum up the first rule this way: Create characters readers will be drawn to and put them in desperate trouble. Then you'll have readers almost breathless to find out what happens
Note this does not mean the characters must be of the traditional hero type. It is enough that we find some connection. Michael Corleone is not a hero. He's a monster. But he's a very good monster. Power is attractive.
Hannibal Lecter? Not someone we'd like to have dinner with. Or around. But he can manipulate people through his intellect and charm. He is the most interesting character in The Silence of the Lambs.
Do not give us a mere slice of life. Slice someone's life instead. If you write suspense, the knife might be real. If literary, it could be the cutting words of nemesis. Just don't give us a dull blade.
That is the first rule.
James Scott Bell is the author, most recently, of Presumed Guilty (Zondervan) and Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure (Writers Digest Books).
"The Suspense Never Rests."