Advice For Novelists From Hollywood – Part 2

Advice For Novelists Part 1 contained suggestions on a new approach to evaluating how a novel is written. Rather than following the typical rules taught in most workshop, Ted Baehr, media critic and Chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission and publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Movieguide, a website and biweekly journal that evaluates motion pictures suggested approaching those elements in a different order and beginning in a way with the Theme or Premise, following somewhat in the footsteps of Aristotle’s  Hierarchy of Structure.

This post will cover some of the other writing tips that Baehr provided on his workshop handout sheets. These will be presented under the novel structure points from Part 1.

Enhancing Your Story

Premise -The premise appears within the first few paragraphs of the novel, even the first sentence, since it is an invitation to the reader to join the story’s journey. The premise also introduces the first conflict. The reader recognizes the problem the character will have to reach and obtain the character’s goal. Characters grow from the premise and the background of the character needs to be clear to the reader so they understand the need and motivation of the goal.

Baehr suggests eight techniques for the premise.

For the author as well as the reader’s understanding, turn the premise into a question.

Wrap the premise around an emotion which provides the reader with feelings in which to relate.

Make the premise about the hero’s or heroine’s inner need, which is a more subtle need and yet stronger than an outward need  since it has to do with a lack, flaw, value or belief in the character’s temperament, personality or character.

Convey the premise through a subplot. To strengthen the premise, an author can echo the problem again in the lives of other characters which will add drama to the storyline as the main character grows or fails when dealing with the subplot issue.

Each character reveals a facet of the premise. This means that another character can cause a barricade or a stumbling stone in the life of the person’s goal as reflected in the premise.

Present opposition as powerfully as the hero. A weak predator or nemeses creates a weak storyline. Where’s the battle? Where’s the tension? A powerful problem or character that thwarts the main character’s attempt to reach a goal makes a more powerful story.

Weave the premise into dialogue. Dialogue, whether spoken words to another character or alone or internal dialogue, is more active than telling. Bring the struggle to life by using dialogue between characters and through short moments of introspection.

Communicate premises through images. This will be one of the more difficult tips to follow. Images can be word pictures describing scenery, a room, a house, a billboard, a photo album, a diary that holds secrets, a forgotten letter, or anything that offers both a picture and a message to the reader. A wall display of weapons could be an image that triggers a message to the character as well as the reader. Don’t neglect to seek ways to bring the premise to life by creating images. This is easier to do in films. If you’ve seen the movie The Great Gatsby, you’ll remember the billboard and the gigantic pair of eyes looking out over the town.

Plot – Movies use three-act structure which is also used for stage plays and taught as a method of structuring fiction. It’s includes the opening, middle, and ending with each section fulfilling a specific purpose. Many posts are available on this website that deal with plotting and the three-act structure. Remember that each act, which is made up of chapters, provides a turning point at the end of the act. The beginning provides the main information needed for the reader, introduction of characters, setting, and goal of the character or characters, and it ends with a main conflict that pulls the reader into Act 2.

The middle resolves the first major conflict or causes it to grow, and adds new conflicts along the way as the character(s) struggle to resolve them and make progress toward the goal. When the act is near drawing to a close, a final conflict rears its head that is one that’s the most dire or it insinuates a conflict on the verge of happening. This draws the reader into the Act 3. The ending consists of the chapters that show the battle to resolve the final conflict that seems to be impossible to resolve, then conquers the problem, ties together all loose threads of story and subplots and leaves the reader with a feeling of finality and sense of enjoyment.

Conflict is the thread from tension to emotion, which is an important element for a good novel. Authors should learn to take small steps toward resolving each conflict as it arises, and raising the emotion with each step, such as: frustration, fear, confusion, concern, disgust, anger, humor and any emotion that fits the situation and shows its growth.

Foreshadowing is another element of plot that adds tension to the story and keeps readers intrigued. One way is to offer the reader a bit of information so they see a problem ahead, but then leave them without knowing how or when it will be resolved. This can be done in dialogue, introspection, or through a happening that poses a problem—a phone call, letter, hearing someone significant is in town—and adds a sense of question to the reader. It can only be a hint of a problem, but they will catch it and be alerted.

Relief is another element that authors use to enhance the novel, especially in thrillers, suspense, dramas or action stories. Think of Shakespeare who always added comedy themes to his tragedies. Make sure that each conflict resolution brings a sense of relief which insinutates conflict must be important to the character and the plot.

Character comes out of the premise, as I said earlier, which means the author creates the best kind of person with particular flaws and successes that can overcome the odds. Baehr suggests that protagonists basically fall into four types: Heroic, Average, Underdog, Lost.

Dialogue/Diction is not only the conversation between characters or characters’ thoughts, but it also has to do with communicating the story to the reader. To do that:

1.  Weigh what’s important in your novel and know what message you want to leave with your reader whether an idea , a conviction, or a key thought.

2.  Think about your novel’s genre and execute this message in the most vivid way possible through action, dialogue and images.

3.  Make sure you’re using every element to prove the premise: characters,               conflicts,

climax and resolution.

4. Write your premise statement and punctuate it with dramatic and literary effects to capture and retain your readers.

Writing styles can also strengthen the premise of the novel as well as the message. Here are some of Baehr’s suggestions.

1.  To shock readers, make the incredible credible.

2.  To create irony, the reader assumption must be contrary to the outcome. Think of the O’Henry short story, Gift of the Magi.

3.  To create a paradox, logic must be contradicted by fact.

4.  To create a satire, the normal is exaggerated.

5.  To create suspense, withheld information must confront the readers’ desire to know.

How to critique your novel

Look at the artistic value of the novel and how well you’ve accomplished it.

Study the novel to see if it emotionally captures the reader and amuses them as entertainment.

Evaluate whether certain elements fit the story and if they are important to the story, such as: language style, sexual content, violence and decide what value it has for the story.

Appraise how the story comes together and how the characters relate to each other.

Review what the novel is communicating in light of the premise.

Compare this novel to others you’ve written.

Evaluate the various premises you have poised in this story.

And finally, Baehr states that when judging audiences reaction to films, this is what they prefer:





In light of this list, novelists can expect that readers lean in the same direction. Do you offer any of these elements in your fiction? Looking at reviews and readers’ mail, have you picked up on this preference with readers? Learning to evaluate your work helps you to become a better novelist that can make a greater impact on readers.




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  1. Jill W February 26, 2014 at 7:20 pm #

    Have you ever thought about doing an on-line class? Your posts are packed with so much great information, each one must be studied, not just read.
    Thank you!

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