Module Three: Construction of a Novel
Pattern and order
The writer of a novel creates a work of art and, although gifting is important, novel writing can be learned. A novel should be put together with the same degree of expertise and creativity as any other masterpiece. An artist needs to understand pleasing patterns, so the writer must be conscious of the pattern created by their work.
Below are three basic patterns. They are not exhaustive. There are many more. Following the patterns is the basis of a story which fits the pattern.
This is the simplest and most common. A wants to get to B. A may represent the character and B the ambition. However, to ensure the reader’s continued interest, A must experience a series of setbacks, some greater than the others, before they realised their desired goal. Thus the writer allows the main character to almost succeed several times. Each anticipated success is thwarted and the character is brought back, sometimes, to square one. The character’s situation may be even more disadvantaged than at the beginning. This is often the case before the last and final push to reach the goal. However, they must achieve success in the end.
The above pattern is for two main characters and shows a character who begins at an advantageous position, A, and one who begins at a disadvantage, B. As the story unfolds, events take place and the characters interact with each other, A and B converge at C and change places. The plot of a story, based on this pattern, could be a rich, well brought up youth who becomes friendly with a criminal. His sense of honour and goodness leads to a change of heart in the criminal. However, the ‘nice’, ‘well brought up’ lad rebels against his upbringing and takes to the world of crime.
There are a number of variations on the above theme. It is quite satisfying to have A and B starting at the same place, drifting apart before meeting again at C. Yet, whatever the variation, there must always be a point where the two meet (C). A and B are two people or groups of people who share the same destiny or have something significant in common. They may have been estranged or they may have never met. According to the pattern above, they have never met. The story describes the two characters and the circumstances which govern their life, in parallel. The similarities must not be too striking but there must be a common thread which draws them together. Eventually, they meet and together, achieve a joint ambition. The story is concluded at D. Usually the writer moves from one character to the other, describing the exploits of first A and then B. The most important factor is that there must be a degree of similarity to convince the reader the two people are part of the same story. This is not one of the easiest patterns to use but, if done well, can be gripping.
Q.1 You have already decided on the basic story. Develop this further by considering the pattern you want to use. You may find it easier to experiment with a variety of patterns. If you wish to try several, feel free to do so. Indicate the pattern you are using and outline your story underneath. If you feel this part of the course is too abstract for you to grasp, you can move to Module 5 where we give a model structure, based on the first pattern. It may be helpful for you to do the exercise in Module 5 before returning to the present lesson.
Characterisation and its relation to plot.
- The plot evolves from the use of characters. Out of the character’s anger, hurt, betrayal, love, ambition, hope etc., the plot is created.
- Characters need to be well studied. Watch people, ask their opinions, listen to them or ask their opinions of others. Most important, unless creating an identifiably bad or good character, do not pass judgement, only observe.
- Provide the reader with a good character sketch before using the character in the story.
- Allow your character to surprise the reader sometimes, thus they will appear more human. Occasionally, people behave in unexpected ways.
Q.2 Describe one of your characters as if you are writing the story. There are a variety of ways of describing a character to the reader. Use one or more of the following ways:
a) Straight description:
An example from “Heart of Stone” by John Haworth
“I got up and turned my own chair away from the computer to face the visitor. He took off his coat and, with a certain delicacy, placed his thin briefcase against the wall. We weighed each other up. My first impressions were of a tall lean man in his late thirties with a tanned face topped with short, pale brown hair that looked sun bleached. There was barely an ounce of spare flesh on him. He was clean shaven, and immaculately groomed – the kind of man who gave me a compulsion to tidy my papers away.”
The strength of this description lies in the fact that it occasionally refers to the main character. His impressions are noted (lines 3/4) and the affect the character being described has on him (line 6). More will be said about the importance of the character’s viewpoint in a later lesson.
An example from “Visions of Darkness” by Isobel Mason. The conversation is between Jack and Mary (his wife). The description is useful in that it also shows the reaction of the two main characters towards the character described. The first person to speak is Mary.
“‘I’d like to know why the old codger never pays his bills.’
‘He pays when he comes in for his pension every Tuesday.’
‘He doesn’t pay it all,’ she said, standing with her hands on hips glaring at her husband. ‘Do you know how much he owes?’
‘Of course I do,’ he lied.
‘Hummm. I bet there’s no need for him to owe a penny, I reckon he’s loaded.’
‘You don’t know that.’
‘You mark my words,’ she said, moving toward Jack. ‘When he dies, there’ll be thousands stashed under his mattress – and who’ll get all that? Not us I don’t suppose.’
‘Mary, love, you shouldn’t talk like that.’
‘Don’t you tell me how to talk. I work hard to pay my way and I don’t like them that begs. When he dies, we could retire on what he’s owing.’ Then a shadow crossed her face. ‘You’ve kept all the bills?’
‘Well you ‘ave, ‘aven’t yer?’
‘Yes, yes, I have,’ he lied for the second time.”
Remember, description is always subjective and may tell the reader more about the person providing the description than the one being described.
c) Description in the first person. This is usually done by the character looking in a mirror and describing what they see.
An example from the first draft of “Visions of Darkness” by Isobel Mason
After putting the final touches to my make-up, I relaxed into the bedroom chair and studied my reflection in the mirror. The small, oval face, with its cream complexion, framed by blonde curls and pierced by blue eyes, stared back defiantly. ‘I’m going on this trip,’ I said, as if fearing contradiction, ‘despite what they say.’
Encouraged by a determined face, I continued. ‘All my life they’ve tried to shape me, press me into their mould like forcing a square peg into a round hole. Well, I won’t have it any longer.’
d) The comments or thoughts of another character
An example from “The Cost of Revenge” by Joyce Currer
“I would really like to see them both cry”, she thought. “Not gentle tears, but great drops of water flowing from eyes and heart. A deluge of feeling; cleansing tears, like this rain, washing away years of fear and prejudice. But tragedy is foreign to them. Something that only happens to others because of the risks they take. For how long? Perhaps one day the mask will slip and then I will catch a glimpse of the real person inside.” She sighed and turned away from the window.
Again, this indicates the relationship between the characters.
Of course, there are other methods of description. Someone can be described through a newspaper article, a report, a confession by the person themselves etc. The above examples are descriptions of either the physical appearance of the person or their character. Some descriptions include both. Look at the following from “House of Cards” by Michael Dobbs. It is a long description so sections are omitted.
“He lay slumped in the armchair, still in his crumpled suit which had got him through lunch and which still carried some of it on the lapel. He cursed when he saw the time. He must have been asleep for five hours yet he still felt exhausted. He needed a drink to pick himself up. . .
He stood in front of the mirror, trying to repair the damage of his latest binge. He saw his father’s face, reproachful as ever, urging him on to goals which were always just beyond him, demanding to know why he never managed to do things quite like his elder brother Henry. . .
He guided the razor past the old cuts on his baggy face, and began putting the pieces back together. The hair brushed over the balding pate, the fresh shirt and clean tie. . . he was almost ready. Just in time for one more drink.”
This excellent description tells us, not only about the person and his problem but what was the original root cause of his dissipation.