Novels, and how not to kill them

I started work on my second novel last month. My first novel, a sprawling space opera with a massive galactic war underpinned by a theological theme, reached about 50,000 words over the course of four long years before it shuddered to a halt, running out of steam because I didn't know where to go with it.

Partially the reason it was such slow, painful process is because whilst I was adding to that novel I wrote some thirty odd short stories and novellettes, started reviewing for a website, finished school and started university.Mainly, it was because I didn't know where I was going. I'm never the fastest writer out of the block wordcount wise so even writing every day I'd not add much.

The thing is, because my outlining wasn't very good, i had no idea where to go next so when I got stuck I had no guide to fall back on, so I'd go and write something else and the novel would sit untouched for weeks or months at a time.

In the last two years I've mostly ignored that first novel and concentrating on learning the theory of story and story structure, taking most of my inspiration from screenwriting books.I spent a lot of time looking at three act structure, plot points and story arcs, and where to place the turning points of your story to fully make the most of classic storytelling form. I'd practice this using short fiction.

The basic caveat of screenwriting 101, as taught by Syd Field, William Goldman or Robert Mckee is three act structure. It involves four or five main major parts.First, you have the Opening. In a screenplay of 120 pages, this is the first 10 pages. In a 100,000 word novel, you're talking about the first 10,000. This is where the scene is set, the characters introduced and the main story idea starts to take form. It doesn't actually have to reveal much about the main plotline, just intrigue the reader or viewer enough to keep watching or reading.

An example: American Gods by Neil Gaiman. The first few thousand words of this book are about Shadow's release from prison and his discovery of his wife's death. While there are segments of wierd god related events to pique the reader's interest, the main focus is on Shadow and letting the reader get to know the main character. Shadow meets Wednesday, the mysterious old god figure, but only as a man. the main parts of the story are introduced but nothing major happens, yet.

The opening starts the First act, which is roughly the first quarter of the book. At the end of the first act, there's the First Act Turning Point. Here is where things suddenly take a severe change for the worse, life gets a lot more complicated and the main character(s) are thrown into the main plotline of the film. Essentially this means that the first 25000 words are setup. the world is introduced, the problem is introduced but its not until this point that things really get so desperate that the protaganist has to start ACTING instead of reacting to what's happening.

A good example is Lord Of The Rings, when Frodo reaches Rivendell and decides to take the ring to Mordor himself. Until this point, Frodo is merely doing what Gandalf tells him, and running from the Ringwraiths because they are chasing, rather than because he knows what's going on. When he gets to Rivendell and is told the full meaning of the Ring and how important it is to the world, he makes a conscious decision to ACT and destroy this evil himself. That's when the plot proper (the quest to destroy the ring) begins. Appropriately, it's also where the fellowship is formed.

The first turning point starts the second act. Now the setting, characters and plot have been setup, the second act is the meat of the book or film, where there's lots of action as the protaganist tries to fulfill the goal he has set himself. In the film Cool Runnings this is where the four jamaican bobsleighers have agreed to go to the olympics with John candy (first act) and now arrive and have to train, get their equipment and start preparing for the event.In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, this is where Harry is entered into the tournament (first act leads up to the drawing out the hat) and he now has to de his utmost to win the tournament and find out why someone cheated to get him entered.Another major step but not an essential one is the Second Act Midpoint, halfway through the story. Basically, this is a twist that sends the second act off in another direction. it's useful to know if you're getting stuck but you can get by making this one up as you go.

The next, and perhaps the most important part of a good structured story is the Second Act Turning Point, about three quarters of the way into the novel/film. This is the point where the main character finds out a key bit of information or a key event occurs that allows him/her to complete their goal. It ends the second act of the character TRYING to do it and moves into the Third Act where the character COMPLETES the goal, either with success or final failure.Examples: James Bond finding the location of the enemy's secret base so he can now go and destroy it. Han, Luke and Leia escaping the death star with the secret plans, knowing now how to destroy it. Frodo and Sam being shown the way into Mordor by Gollum. In mystery/detective stories, the detective will find a key piece of evidence that unlocks the crime and reveals the person who did it. In a romance, the main character realises something about the love interest that changes their minds into wanting a relationship.

The last part is simply the end, or Resolution. This i where the loose ends are tied up, the final battle occurs, the crime is solved, the princess saved, Tom Hanks finds Meg Ryan on the top of the Empire State Building, The Death Star and the Ring are destroyed, etc.It doesn't have to be a victory, but the final third act needs to complete the goal in one way or another, using the key bit of information or event from the second act turning point to do it.

Learning these basic milestones for my stories helped me understand where I was going a lot better. Now I don't start writing until I know what my First Act Turning Point and Second Act Turning Point are, as these are the 'tentpoles' on which the story hangs. If I know the major events to aim for a quarter and three quarters into the story, I have something to aim for and filling in the gaps either side of them becomes much easier.

Once you have this basic skeleton worked out, the novel ahead of you isn't a blank canvas waiting to be filled. it isn't so scary. It's a sketch needing fleshing out.Outlining isn't everyone's cup of tea, mostly because I think they envisage long days spent researching, or textbook sized character essays and other thigns that don't help move things on. But personally I feel a lot more comfortable once I know these basic points of the story new novel has almost half the 50,000 words I wrote in four years in barely six weeks, because I know where I have to go. Hopefully this technique will help you get there too.