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-To Rewrite your Still Unfinished Novel

Smart novelists work the novel in three levels: Story, Structure, Style.

Words needed to talk about story: Plot, Character, Roles (Protagonist, Antagonist, Helper), Myth-Base (Garden, Wasteland, Hades, Eden, Grail-Quest, Patricide, Regicide, etc.), Resource Base (object of desire), Core Story, Motivation, Agenda, Back Story, Subplots. Story in the early stages is big-picture stuff.


One: Story Failure

1. Story: You have More than one Protagonist.

The plot follows your protagonist. A second protagonists splits the plot—who does the reader root for? Does she follow Protag 1? Does she follow Protag 2? The quick fix here is to cram Protag 2 into a subplot or kill her off.

2. Story: Your Antagonist is a weakie.

As you poured your writing energy into Protag 2, your Antagonist went limp—not enough ink, not enough scenes, not enough back story. Story is a competition for the Resource Base. Resource Base means object of desire. It could be a water hole in cattle country. It could be a fuel depot in the dystopian desert world of Mad Max. When the protagonist struggles with the antagonist over who controls the Resource Base, there is drama. A strong antagonist forces the protagonist to grow, to build muscle, to think and connive. What would Cinderella be without the Wicked Stepmother? What would Robin Hood be without the evil Sheriff of Nottingham? What would Captain Picard be without the Borg?

3. Story: You did not write enough back story.

Back story is what happened to your character before Page One. If you failed to failed to write enough back story for your main characters (Protagonist, Antagonist, Helper, Antagonists 1 and 2), then you did not dig deep enough to find motivation—why characters do stuff. Since fiction is the art of bringing the past into the present, your characters got confused about why they were there. What drives Ahab to seek the White Whale? Check his back story, where the whale chewed off a leg. Now Ahab has a leg made of ivory, nice symbol link to whale-hunting. Smart writers copy stuff like that. What drives Jay Gatsby to seek the Golden Girl, who represents East Coast wealth? Check his back story, Jay Gatz, poor boy turned bootlegger, longing for the good rich life. If you remember that line, Gatsby describing Daisy: “Her voice is full of money.” That line, when coupled with Gatsby gazing across the water at Daisy’s House, is buttressed by his poor boy past.


4. Story: Confusing Core Stories.

You failed to lock down your main characters to their own private subplots, guided by separate core stories. Example: Jane Eyre is the protagonist; she has the plot; she is a poor girl Cinderella scrambling up the economic ladder. Her core story is Rags to Riches. At the top of Jane’s ladder is Mr. Rochester, lord of Thornfield, who wants Jane’s virginal body, a familiar Darwinian motivation: Rochester is driven by his unspoken desire for genetic success—he wants to father a kid with his genes. He can’t father a kid with his crazy wife Bertha, locked away in the tower. So he fixes on poor Jane. His core story is Queen Replacement, replacing a sick female with a healthy one. If you can lock down the right core story, you can better grasp the subtext of your tale. Jane, the incipient mom, wants to be Mrs. Rochester, mistress of Thornfield Hall, the visible Resource Base, which provides safety for her as yet unborn infant. Rochester wants Jane’s body, so he proposes, but he keeps the nutty wife a secret. Core stories are ancient and archetypal. They lurk in the subtext. And if you wrote a Cinderella novel in the manner of Jane Eyre, and if a friend or literary agent asked what your story is about, you could answer: “My story is a clash between Queen Replacement and Rags to Riches.”

(To see more on using core story in your work, see The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel. )

5. Story: Failure to nail down Place.

Movie people call it the Establishing Shot—the opening sequence of a scene sets the stage, whether it’s a garden party in Sussex or a cabana at Club Met, wet sand, footprints, the tang of suntan oil. A good setting gets the story out of the narrator’s head and onto the landscape. The objects in the landscape (rusty pickup trunk, old house that needs paint) locks down your scene. When you add smells—burnt rubber—and sounds (the buzz of insects), you make the story palpable.

Two:  Structural Failure

Key words for talking about structure: Scene, Scene Sequence, Scene Sandwich, Key Scenes, Scene Profile (analysis), Scene Profile (rewriting), Acts, Flashbacks, Intruder, Time Span, Chronology.  Definition: structure is an arrangement of parts. The parts in story-telling can be big, like acts and scenes and character entrances. Or the parts can be small, like subject-verb-object in a sentence, or a stack of words using rhetoric: I came, I saw, I conquered. The main structure for your novel is scene-sequence. What happens first? What happens next? How does your story end?

6. Structure: You failed to break your novel into three acts.

Aristotle lit up the structural path for you with beginning, middle and end—not rocket science. The French like 5 Acts, screen writers often cleave Act Two in half, which produces four acts. You can verify three acts, or four, with seven Key Scenes: Page One and After, First Encounter, Plot Point One, Mid-Point, Plot Point Two, Climax, and the End. Failure to lock down structure left you dependent on narration and exposition to explain the narration. Exposition allowed the author to take the stage: “Enter author, reading from the script.”

7. Structure: Writing in Narration and Exposition kept you from writing scenes.

Narration compresses time, it feels so harmless to start a paragraph or a chapter with stuff like this: The next day; the following week; next year; the year after that. When you wallow in narration, you get lost. When you get lost, you write exposition, the mode that explains, in author voice, which you try to disguise as the interior monologue, which obliterates action, because you failed to write in scenes, which force you to write action or feel really stupid. Your novel collapses on page 50, and you switch to writing short stories


8. Structure: You Failed because of the way you view the Novel.

How do you visualize your novel-process. Do you think of spinning the novel like a damsel in the tower, spinning with golden thread? Do you think of yourself as a carpet-maker, weaving away with narration? Do you object to building metaphors, each episode like a room in a house? Do you see your work as music, the melody spins out, you record the tune? Sometimes when I used the word “structure,” writers in the workshop would go into reject-mode because structure hemmed them in. Their sort of work was organic, it had a life of its own. Don’t get me wrong. Big-time novelists talk the same way, but they are concealing their process, keeping the secret safe. Creativity brought us here. We want to make something with words. Something that lasts, right? Something of value. I like construction metaphors. Building a novel is like building a house. You start with an idea. The idea goes into a sketch, the sketch becomes a blueprint. The blueprint dictates stages. Digging a foundation. Strings lay out the boundaries. Blueprints are cheaper than tearing up a wall. A blueprint is like character work. You work your character, starting with birthdate and birthplace, parents, house, bedroom, closet—what’s in the closet of your protagonist at age 8? Was there a closet? Was there a separate bed? A crowded bed? Who was in bed with the protagonist? Did your protagonist sleep on the floor? What bugs visited? Character work coughs up objects for your novel. To evoke the past, bring back the narrow bed. You made the bed with character work. No failure there.

9. Structure: Act Three gets too Crowded.

You’ve read books like this—not much happens in Acts One and Two and then, boom, everything happens in Act Three, character intros, settings, penetrating dialogue—the works. A good example is the novel version of Leaving Las Vegas, starring a drunk and his hooker girl-friend. The writer crams the story into Act Three. When the novel became a film, Mike Figgis, a classy guy, spread the Act Three events across Acts One and Two. The result showed up at Oscar Time for Nicolas Cage and a nomination for Elisabeth Shue. The question for you is why. Why did Act Three get so puffy? The answer goes back to choices. You chose to write narration instead of scenes. Narration casts a spell. You go crazy with the words. You’re hot, you’re gonna be famous, footlights, the stage, the Oscar, the world sprawled at your feet. But you gotta keep count. Word-count, page-count, character list, scene-count.

10. Admonition. You failed to count scenes. Because you chose narration.

You can count scenes to control your novel. A scene is 4-5 pages long. The manuscript can only hold maybe 60. You can count scenes—a scene has a beginning, a middle, and an end—but you can’t count passages of narration that blend into chunks of exposition. When neophyte novelists tell me they’re writing a novel, I ask these questions: How many pages will it be? What page are you on now? How many scenes to go?

Most of the time, they don’t know.

Therefore: novelists have a lot to learn from screenwriters.


11. Structure: You Failed to count characters—your stage is too crowded. You failed to make a Cast Roster. Or maybe you made one too late.

I start counting characters when I have 20 pages of writing. I make a list and assign roles. I study my character list like a Cast Roster for a play or film. How many protags? How many antags? How many walk-ons? Who wants to stay? Who wants to help? If I was a director of a stage play, these people would be on my payroll. How many stars can I afford? How many supporting actors? How many walk-ons? How many characters can I carry for 300 pages? Have I got more than one protagonist? Have I got a solid antagonist, one who needs to die at the end? Each character needs ink. Ink takes pages. A hundred or more pages for the protagonist. Another seventy-five for the antagonist. Twenty pages for each helper. Then a walk-on comes back, willing to help. The walk-on wants a subplot. A subplot needs a back story. You need three cops for the crime scene. Which one talks. Your antagonist has a gang. Do the gang members talk? Dialogue takes pages. Characters need exploring. Too much exploration gets you off track. How much time can you waste and all because of too many characters. So keep your cast list handy.

Three: Style Failure

Key Words: Word Picture, Nouns (concrete vs. abstract), Verbs (weak vs. strong), Operation Ratio, Armored Prose, Syntax, Rhythm, Cadence, Voice, Line-Editing, Paragraph.

12. Style Failure: You wrote your book in Armored Prose! Get thee to the Novelist’s Hell, where you are doomed to read bad prose till the end of time.

Armored prose is the meaningless, polysyllabic garble you hear in speeches, in church, on the smart phone, in advertising. Bizspeak, the language of corporations, is Armored Prose, intended to obfuscate, to mislead, to conceal. Armored prose is polysyllabic, euphemistic, distorted, mendacious. It is our version of Latin from an earlier time, the language of the priesthood, of the refined and educated classes. You can see Armored Prose at work in people who use big words instead of small words. As a culture, we use big words to prove we are educated. The use of Armored Prose is a concealment scheme that harkens back to the Middle Ages when the vulgar tongues had no value and the only language of truth was the Latin of the Church and the Latin of the Universities. We still, in our educational system, teach our version of Latin. It is modern, it is polysyllabic, long-winded and clumsy. It is a language for the unfeeling, a muddled way of trying to be nice. Avoid it. Excise Armored Prose from your life. At least from your writing. Today’s Armored Prose is Latinate: administration, compensation, obfuscation, obliteration.

13.  Style Failure: You failed to use concrete nouns.

The fix: pack in those concrete nouns. The cure: You need to detect Armored Prose early. Not on page 367, when you wake suddenly after your feedback group says your novel is boring, but on page one. To get at your nouns, you need Operation Ratio, which beams your brain down on concrete nouns. It’s easy, but you gotta work. Choose a passage from your manuscript. Circle the nouns in red. Copy the nouns into a grid using two columns: concrete and abstract. A concrete noun has shape, girth, weight, substance: iron, table, chair, arrow, quiver, razor. Abstract nouns, on the other hand, are puffy with emptiness: administration, confrontation, elaboration, tutelage. Taking the time to circle the nouns is the start of your commitment to language. Taking the time to fill the grid marks the day you started to be a writer.

14. Style Failure: You failed to use strong verbs.

The Language of Fiction is word-pictures. You make word pictures with concrete nouns and strong verbs. Strong verbs do action—hit, swat, snatch—and when you get control of your verbs, you can toss in a verb like flagellate, because you know what your language is doing. Weak verbs come in four forms:

  • infinitives (to monitor the situation);
  • subjunctives (would, should, could, may, might);
  • passives (the elephant was considered to have been poisoned by);
  • internal interiors (think, opine, consider, assume, know, hope).


To nail those weak verbs, you use the same passage you used for nouns. Circle the words in green. Then you empty the noun-grid, and this time you copy in verbs. Good verbs, and crappy verbs. Again, the act of circling verbs is the big step. You stop writing, you take a good look at your words. If you think circling is a waste of time, you have no hope of being a writer, novels or essays or TV scripts. The circling on the page is not forever. Just circle the verbs until you train your brain. Then write me a thank you note. (To see Operation Ratio in action, check The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel.)

15. Style Failure: You focused on the paragraph and not the sentence.

The paragraph is arbitrary—one word or a thousand words. Or two thousand. Or three. The  paragraph is marked by an indentation at the start and a period at the end. These are ridiculous boundaries. Obscene. The sentence is the main unit of discourse. The sentence has rules. You can’t have a complete sentence without a verb. You can write fragments, but they don’t work alone. You need at least three fragments, and they need to be linked before much happens. You can stack fragments up:

The small boy.

The angry boy.

The dead boy. If you’re doing writing practice—

writing under the clock in a café with your writer-friends—

and if your brain is making paragraphs,

then you are wasting time,

you are using the energy needed for sentences to craft the paragraph, which means you are trying to write final draft—that teacher from school perched on your shoulder, claws digging in.

Stop writing paragraphs.

Write sentences.

Make the paragraph later.

When you know your story.

When you know your characters.

When you have crafted a thousand terrific sentences.

Then you can make paragraphs.