Monday, September 24, 2012

Wordcraft -- The myriad paths to a novel

Just when I think I’ve heard every way to write a novel, I attend the writing workshops at annual science fiction/fantasy convention, FenCon, in Dallas and learn there are so many more.

That was the case at this past weekend’s workshop led by Canadian science fiction author Karl Schroeder.

And Schroeder knows how to write novels. He’s written or co-written at least ten published science fiction novels, most recently Ashes of Candesce, out this year from Tor Books. Oh, and a little classic of nonfiction, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Science Fiction (with Cory Doctorow).

Self-deprecating to the core, Schroeder also mentions the twelve novels he wrote, starting at age sixteen, before he got published. As all serious fiction writers know, our apprenticeship in the storyteller’s guild consists of writing stories that may never be published.

He asks us workshop members what the components of a story are. “Beginning, middle, end,” one brave soul answers with the classic Aristotelian definition. But what if you want to tell a story like Memento, “a Jacobean revenge story, literally, but the way it’s told is backwards?” Schroeder asks.

So start instead by saying the first element is “the hook -- what gets the reader reading. After the hook, you have the introduction of characters and setting, then the development and a climax, leading all the way to the end,” Schroeder suggests.

“The idea of what a story is should never be cast in stone,” he says. “What we’re going to do is take a look at different perspectives.”

He opens with what he terms the seven-point plot “used most effectively in the Twilight Zone series.” Academically, this consists of hook, plot turn 1 (or “call to adventure), pinch (conflict), midpoint (not necessarily halfway through), plot turn 2 and pinch 2 (which Schroeder summarizes as “rinse and repeat”), and resolution. In the Twilight Zone, the resolution would be, in Schroeder’s words, “a Greek chorus commentary.” I can hear the voice of Twilight Zone host Rod Serling as Schroeder speaks.

The seven-point plot is probably enough for a short story, Schroeder says, but to write novels, we’ll have to dig deeper. Give the protagonist two problems -- one external, one internal, with failure coming from “only addressing the external problem,” and ignoring the internal one, “a character change (the protagonist) has spent the story avoiding.”

There’s also, Schroeder says, “there’s a theory of story where the story is a passionate argument between two characters.” And a theory he intriguingly calls the five-man band (for ensemble casts). And Japanese and classical Chinese ways of telling stories. The thing he most want to tell us in this first workshop session is “not to fall in the trap” of thinking there’s only one way to structure a story.

He’ll have a lot more to say later, and a lot more tools to add to our writing kits, including the possibility of discovering a story’s structure simply by writing it. For those who'd like more about the seven point plot, I’ve found a helpful source at

(I’ll continue Schroeder’s discussion in a later post, but next Monday Wordcraft takes a detour for Banned Books Week, September 30-October 6 this year. And if you think only pornographic books get banned, you don’t have the mind of a censor who can find the objectionable in A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh.)


  1. Fascinating, Melissa. I'm very interested in theory. I seem to be able to write short stories without any. But, novels-- not so much. So I'm always on the look out for ideas. But hey, perhaps I ought to just crack on writing my 16 practice novels!

    What about you, Melissa. What structure do you use, if any?

    1. As you can see from Schroeder's discussion, your number of practice novels isn't unusual. I was taught to use Chris Vogler's "The Writer's Journey." That novel's still being shopped around to agents. I'm currently fascinated by Randy Ingermanson's "fractal" method -- see his discussion at

  2. Very interesting, not only for writing but also for discussing books in the bookgroup.

    1. Thanks, Julia. It would be interesting to pick a novel (even some nonfiction) apart to look at the structure.