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Writing the Novel: Basic Story Ingredients

Let's consider four basic ingredients to your future novel. Let's design the (c)haracters, the (c)atch of the story, the (c)onflict of your tale, and the (c)onclusion of your tale.

“When written in Chinese, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity” – John F Kennedy

Now that we’ve researched and analyzed WHY we wish to write a novel (the Theme) and decided upon the general location and setting of our story (the Stage), it’s time to put fingers to keyboard and begin to actually write this epic novel, isn’t it?

Well, not quite yet, I’m afraid. Of course, you could begin writing now, but the chances are that the end result of your efforts would be a bit of a wandering mess. I could write you about my life’s events yesterday, and it would probably read something like the following:

“After waking about seven thirty in the morning, I had a cup of coffee, got dressed for work, and read the morning paper. About eight thirty, I left my house, hopped in the car, and drove to work. I took lunch about one pm, and then returned to work. At five-thirty, I left work, went back home, enjoyed a hot meal, then spent the evening writing some poetry and relaxing with the family…”

Now, that’s all very fascinating stuff, I’m quite sure (Not!), but I’m afraid that it’s not a story. The point here is that a novel isn’t just a simple historical list of events that happen to your chosen character, but rather a purposeful portrayal of key events in the ‘life’ of your character that serve a valuable purpose: they exist to teach your reader; to portray your message to them in a vivid and hopefully unforgettable manner.

How do we create these mysterious unfolding events, the elements that will ultimately comprise our story? We start by recognizing the basic ingredients of our story. Before we set fingers to keyboard or pen to paper, let’s have a clear understanding of these ingredients. Then, we will be able to begin creating a simple historical list of events (a Plot) that makes use of these elements. Once we do, our resulting story will be a smooth, fluid ‘guided tour’ that will both entertain and teach our readers.

From my own understanding and brief experience, there are four basic ingredients to a story that need to be created and designed. For memory purposes, each of these four elements begins with the letter ‘C’. They are Characters, Catch, Conflict, and Conclusion.

Some would argue that this list is an over-simplification, while others would say that some of them, such as ‘Conflict’, can’t be preplanned but most flow out of the writing of the story itself. However, for purposes of providing a starting point for a beginning writer, these four ingredients serve our purpose quite nicely. Let’s examine each of them, in turn.

Characters: Obviously, we need characters for our epic tale: no one will argue that. What makes this ingredient important isn’t so much the name and nature of the characters that we chose, but how they will interrelate to each other and, more importantly, to our setting and theme.

It’s more, really, than just choosing an appropriate hero for your setting: If you’re writing a western, you COULD create an insane clown for your antagonist, but if the story is set in the mid 1800’s, then a mean cattle rustler might be a more appropriate choice. The effort that goes into your choice of characters should be geared, again, to your theme. What type of character can best lead your reader through the historical events that eventually will get them to see the truth and veracity in your message?

In my own recently published novel, ‘Ceylo Krinn and the Fourth Faction’ (http://www.amazon.com/author/ralphstadig), I chose to use a warrior character. Yes, I could have used a priest or a sorcerer, I suppose, but my theme had to do primarily with personal choices and individual effort: a warrior with blades in their hand and doing battle with their own demons was a logical choice.

So my own protagonist (central hero character of the story, the one that reader primarily follows as they read) of ‘Ceylo Krinn’ was born. I made her female for two reasons: One, it allowed me to express the more emotional side of some of her choices and to concentrate on some of the character’s fear and trepidation. Two, I wanted to show in the story that standing up to a challenge, making intelligent choices  and walking a purposeful path, could result in ANY character attaining their goal, no matter whether they were male or female, rich or poor, privileged or not.

I made my villain (the Antagonist, the character who will do everything in their power to defeat the hero) a warrior as well. In fact, in my novel, the bad guy starts off as an ALLY and a seeming accomplice of the hero. Hey, life is tough sometimes: my readers will discover, to their horror, something that we all have seen ourselves in our own lifetimes: sometimes our opponents come off as a close friend and ally. This is a good example of a ‘Character’ becoming a ‘Conflict’, as well.

These two characters also end up as lovers in my story. Why?  The answer is simple enough: My own heroine, Ceylo, ultimately has to come to the point in her path through life where she needs to choose: Is her goal that she’s seeking to accomplish important enough that all OTHER interests have to be set aside in order to overcome?

We’ll cover each of these facets of character creation in more detail in future installments of this series, but for now, remember that before you begin crafting your story and creating the plot, you need to choose your characters carefully and wisely. Create them as tools to aid in your ultimate goal, which is the presentation of your theme. Finally, don’t be afraid to tweak certain elements of their makeup and nature, if doing so will help you to portray your theme properly.

Catch: The ‘Catch’ of the story usually is revealed to your readers very quickly, in the first few opening scenes. The ‘Catch’ is the element in your novel that is DIFFERENT from normal reality, somehow. It’s the revealing incident, occurrence, or property of your principle character that is weird, or out of the ordinary, but in a manner that hopefully proves interesting to your reader and helps to draw them into your story.

Remember the boring personal history I presented earlier? Let’s take another look at that, but from a more prose-like setting:

“Ralph sat down at the breakfast table and rubbed at his eyes with a slight yawn. His wife stepped over to the table, placed a steaming cup of coffee down in front of him, and kissed him gently.

’Thank you’, he mumbled as he took a sip of his coffee. ‘I need this desperately; I have a nine thirty meeting at work, and I’ll be no good to anyone if I’m half asleep…’

The woman laughed nervously and headed back into the kitchen. ‘Maybe you should get to sleep before two in the morning, then…’, she replied.

Mumbling a half-angry reply, he yawned again, and took another slow, careful sip of his coffee…”

Okay, so I won’t win a Pulitzer Prize for that piece of narrative, to be sure. That account may be perfectly fine in a novel, though: Maybe we need to portray such a sleepy morning scene, to establish routine or the potential seeds of conflict between our characters.

But it’s absolutely awful for an opening scene. This is where the ‘Catch’ comes in. What is it about your characters and their own particular nature and situations that make them stand out and become interesting, somehow? Let’s try that section again, but with a ‘twist’…

“Ralph sat down at the breakfast table and rubbed at his eyes with a slight yawn. His wife stepped over to the table, placed a steaming cup of coffee down in front of him, and kissed him gently.

’Thank you’, he mumbled as he inserted a long, slimy tentacle from his lips into the coffee and sucked his first taste of the hot liquid into his abdomen. ‘I need this desperately; I have a nine thirty meeting at work, and I’ll be no good to anyone if I’m half asleep…’

The woman laughed nervously and headed back into the kitchen. ‘Maybe you should get to sleep before two in the morning, then…’, she replied.

Mumbling a half-angry reply, he yawned again, and sucked yet another drip of coffee into his feeding tube…”

Whoa! I’m not sure, but I think that something is SERIOUSLY wrong with our character ‘Ralph’, in that account. What the hell IS he, an Alien? Is he some sort of biology experiment, gone awfully wrong? Did he consume too much Monsanto genetically engineered corn?

That’s the ‘Catch’: there’s something DIFFERENT about ‘Ralph’ that takes what otherwise would have been a quite normal (and boring) opening of our tale and twisted it into something different, unusual, and interesting.

As you begin to setup the elements of the story, be sure to add that slight twist to the mix. Look for something different enough that your reader will be drawn into your tale. It doesn’t have to be as obvious as the ‘tentacle’ used above, it can be simpler. In my own novel, the hero is thrown into conflict immediately; there are dead mercenary guards lying about, a tavern has been disrupted from some previous bloody battle. The employees are bandaging wounded clients, the mood of the scene is heavy and nervous, and the owner flits about angrily in search of the malignant, powerful, awful monster that created all this chaos.

And who IS this malignant, powerful, awful monster? Why… it’s just a frightened, teenage girl, barely past puberty…

That was MY ‘Catch’.

Conflict: No story is complete without conflict. Anything worth attaining in life comes with a cost, does it not? Is the goal we’ve set our hero to accomplish worth that cost? That’s where ‘Conflict’ comes into play.

When you plan your story, you must consider this part carefully. Who would oppose your character and why? Is that opposition external, performed by your own villain, for example, or internal, such as a disease, addiction, or mental deficiency on the part of your hero?

Think about it. What makes the growing romance such an interesting story in ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ isn’t the nature of the principle character, the ‘Beauty’. What makes that tale so captivating is that the character slowly, over time, finds she is falling in love with a real ‘beast’.

How does she justify her growing love of the inner with the apparent awful nature of the exterior? Now THAT’S conflict. In my own novel, the principle conflict that Ceylo Krinn has to overcome is one that I hoped would ring familiar with my readers: it was her half-elven nature.  Ceylo is the product of a mixed heritage: Her Father was human and her Mother was elven. That one element of her character alone dooms her to a life of never ending conflict.  Humans would not trust her and Elves would look upon her as a bit of a bastard child. Ceylo is destined to be eternally alone in her goal of finding her long-lost brother. Had I set this story in more modern times, I might have made her Father Jewish and her Mother a Palestinian, for example. That would have served the same purpose.

Don’t be afraid of throwing obstacles (‘Conflict’) in the path of your hero. It is these obstacles that allow you to show the nature of your hero, provide opportunities to show the worth, value, and sacrifices of their path through life, and help you to present the benefit and veracity of your theme.

Without conflict, you don’t have a story at all; period.

Conclusion: Every story has an ending, and alas: Not all of them are HAPPY endings, either. At the conclusion of the Andrew Lloyd Webber sequel to ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, a wonderful production titled ‘Love Never Dies’, the principle character of ‘Christine’ perishes. She is mourned by both her husband, her son, AND the apparent villain, the Phantom himself.

People see that production and leave weeping; that’s how powerful it is! Despite Christine’s death, it also helps to present the theme, as well. Love truly NEVER dies, even when it is ended tragically, or when it is interrupted by circumstance or choice. That’s the best example I can think of to portray the power and importance of your ‘Conclusion’.

End your story and end it well. Your hero may not achieve their goal, but even then, there’s a powerful message in that failure. But more important than the ending is my key point, here: You need to understand HOW your story ends and under what circumstances it will end even BEFORE you begin to write your tale.

Use your own powerful story conclusion like the glow of a distant lamp in the far reaches of a very murky, cloudy fog: Use it to guide your story, with its characters, its various conflicts and catches, from beginning to end. Doing so will bring a powerful continuity to your story and help to make sure each scene in your tale is supportive of your ending and logical, as well.

The ‘Conclusion’ of your story, though hidden from your readers initially, is the ‘rope’ that you provide to each of them. Though they have no idea what the ending is, when they begin reading, the conclusion you create is the invisible thread that you provide them to guide them from scene to scene in your story.

In my own novel, Ceylo sadly loses her first great love in her life: Her husband turns against her and quite violently: Even his professed love for my half-elf warrior maiden was merely a ruse; a ploy on his part to accomplish his own greater evil goals. Such a tragedy her loss is!

And yet, in the end, Ceylo discovers, and rather rudely, that what she has been seeking her whole life long was beside her the entire time, every step of the way! She was simply blind to it. Only when she was able to accomplish a tiny portion of her quest, set aside her own assumptions, and stand alone at the end of her tale does she discover that what she  sought all along was still standing there, beside her.

Ceylo’s story concludes but the seeds of a new one are immediately planted. That ultimate goal, and her realization of a small portion of it, provided her with the common thread needed to weave the whole elaborate tapestry into a single piece of beautiful art.

Your own conclusion, along with your characters, your ‘catch’, and your conflicts, should do the same for your impending tale. Take the time to design them carefully, set them into place, and give each of them meaning and purpose.

Your novel, when you begin writing it, will come to life in a grand and glorious way, if you do…

(to be continued…)

Ralph R Stadig, East Haven, CT

Author's Website: An Infinite Voyage
Author's Novel: Ceylo Krinn and the Fourth Faction

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