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Crafting your Story

A photograph of a typewriter next to the crest shaped NaNoWriMo logo.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is an annual creative writing challenge that takes place in November where you have 30 days to write a 50,000 word novel. Writing a novel can be a daunting task, but with the right instruction, you’ll be cranking out your manuscript in no time. Below are some basics of novel writing to help get you started on November 1.

Read on for some tips about how to develop your novel for NaNoWriMo. Click a link below to jump to information about a specific topic, or keep reading to take it all in. Happy writing!

Narrative Structure 
Creating Characters
Points of View
Recommended Books about Writing

Narrative Structure

Every novel is meant to tell a story, called the narrative. A novel’s narrative structure is how the action in a story is organized. Effective narrative structure develops the story using a logical series of events that engages and make sense to the reader.

One of the most common ways to organize the action of your narrative is a three-act structure. Act one introduces the characters, setting, and situations as well as backdrop (exposition.) Act two, generally considered the most important act, is where the main drama is introduced. It is also the longest of the three acts. Finally, act three takes us to our resolution where the protagonist resolves the central problem within the story. Toward the outset of this act will be the climax, which is the most dramatic point of the story. After the climax, the storylines will be wrapped up.

A German playwright and novelist named Gustav Freytag created a study based around the five-act dramatic structure. His analysis, sometimes referred to as the dramatic arc, became known as the Freytag pyramid. Freytag based his pyramid on the idea of five-act plays. The five acts are as follows:

Exposition: This is the part of the story that introduces background information to the audience. Here you’ll find character introductions as well as all story leading up to the main plot.

Rising action: A series of events that build towards the main climax. Here you will find the most important part of the story as it sets up the core drama of the story.

Climax: This is the turning point of the story. Where the fate of your protagonist can be altered for either the good or the bad depending on the sort of story it is (i.e. drama, comedy, etc.).

Falling action: the central conflict between the protagonist and antagonist unravels. Here you will see the final showdown.

Dénouement: This takes place from the end of the Falling Action until the last scene. Here you will have the final resolution of the story. Character arcs will be wrapped up, storylines will be resolved.

You can try this site for a more in-depth explanation of Freytag’s pyramid.

Not all novels follow a generic act structure. Some might go for a non-linear storytelling with frequent flashbacks, flash-forwards, and references to present day. A story may be told with the action out of order. The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing by Writer’s Digest Books is an excellent book to get you started on crafting your novel.

Creating Characters

Characters are an important part of the narrative. In any novel, you will have at least one protagonist, at least one antagonist, and other secondary and tertiary characters. The protagonist is generally the central character or characters the story revolves around while the antagonist is the one who acts as the foil for the protagonist. Not every protagonist will be the traditional “good guy.” Some protagonists are “anti-heroes”, characters that normally would be considered villains, but because they are the central character, the audience is meant to identify with the anti-hero. An example of this is the character Michael Corleone in The Godfather.

Secondary characters are those that, while the story does not revolve around them, are there to help drive the central story. Sometimes these characters will exist to provide sage wisdom to our protagonist or to act as the comic relief of the story.

When writing characters, you want to ensure your main characters are well-rounded and complex, not flat and two-dimensional. Best-selling science fiction and horror writer Chuck Wendig shows you how to do this in his book Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative. For more information on developing characters for your novel, try this resource on classification of character types in literature.

Narrative Points of View

Another aspect of your story’s narrative is the point of view. The point of view can be consistent throughout, or change chapter by chapter.

The First-Person Point of View
You can easily identify the first-person point of view by the use of I, me, and myself in the narrative. This point of view is normally used to convey a personal story where the narrator is also the protagonist (or main character) of the story. The first person can also be a secondary character within the story, like in The Great Gatsby.

The Second Person Point of View
This point of view is the least common of all three persons, mostly because it’s the hardest to pull off (without coming across as awkward or corny). You’ll recognize this point of view by the use of you, your, and yourself with the absolute exclusion of any personal pronouns (I, me, myself). The narrator is the reader. It’s tricky, but it can be done. N. K. Jemisin uses second person point of view in select chapters of her Broken Earth Trilogy.

The Third Person Point of View
Many authors enjoy the third person point of view because it offers more flexibility than the first and second persons. Third person can give the narrator a broader view of the story than other narration styles.

Third Person Limited: This point of view follows only one person throughout the story. This is by far the most common point of view, and many classics are written in this style.

Third Person Free Indirect: One of the most popular narration styles, this versatile point of view features a narrator who has the advantages of third person point of view, as well as the ability to narrate characters’ thoughts without using quotation marks. Jane Austen invented this style of narration in English literature. Learn more about Free Indirect narration.

Third Person Multiple: This point of view can follow multiple people, switching back and forth between their individual stories or perspectives. Many romance novels use this style, switching between the two main protagonists to create romantic tension. An example would be Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

Third Person Omniscient: The omniscient narrator knows everything about everyone. It also knows everything about the world within the story. Nothing in the past, present, or future is off limits or hidden from view. Terry Pratchett was a master of this style.

Writing Your Novel From Start to Finish by Joseph Bates will help you decide which narrative point of view you would like to use in your novel.

Recommended Books about Writing

On Writing by Steven King
Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin
Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

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