A reason we write novels is to go on a long, strange trip with a character. We’re in the backseat, sightseeing, listening to them talk, and occasionally when they stop the car to look at something, we get out too. We learn things about the places we go, and we learn things about our hero – and ourselves when we compare our own experiences to him or her.
Where the car goes is up to the author – they have the map in their head, they know whether the bridge is out, whether there’s romance or mystery or alien abductions that lie in front of the bumper.
I could go into more detail about the archetypical Hero’s Journey outline, but others have done it so much better in the past, we probably don’t need to here. The gist is simple; what will the end of the destination be like for the protagonist(s)? The end is just as important as the beginning, and indeed some people write their novels backwards, and then deconstruct the steps it took to get there in order to do it right.
But here’s the ticket for today. You are the navigator for your characters’ journey; so instead of being the backseat driver, you’re riding shotgun. Your reading audience are the ones in the backseat. And the shades are down back there, so they have to lean forward to hear what the characters are saying and see what’s out the front windows.
* Try to remember to describe things well enough that if you didn’t know the place or item in question by name, you could at least draw a picture of it.
“It was an oblong plastic thing, like a picture frame, only there wasn’t a picture in behind the glass like Joseph had ever seen before. It was made up from a single silvery line, clearly showing a mazelike path that formed an image. The two little white knobs made the line at the right end of the picture get a little longer. The artist’s name, ‘Etchasketch”, was signed at the top instead of at the bottom, in some resinous material along the frame.”
“The smell was what he noticed first; a harsh, acrid smell that made his nose itch as he walked across the floor, patterned in small one inch squares. He passed by a flat shelf, about the height of his thigh, and there were three oval depressions in the top that had some sort of ornamental extrusion above it. On the wall was a white box with a tube on one side, and an ominous-looking button the size of his fist.”
* Interaction has ‘action’ as a component. When a character interacts with something, its state changes, visibly, audibly, and perhaps in other ways. Otherwise it’s just scenery.
“Shawn popped the top of the green plastic sports bottle and upended it over his head. It wasn’t the most efficient way to get cool, but he looked happy as the water gushed out and ran down his hair and face in rivulets. “Aaah.” he said.
‘I was thirsty.’ I growled at him.
He stopped smiling. “Sorry.”
Don’t be afraid to change paths if the story looks better the new way. The Wordsmith and I have had a lot of fun warping where a story we’ve been working on is going; sometimes you wind up with ‘breakout characters’ that steal the show, and you wind up liking the way they work with the original main character and you give them a larger role in the tale when they were never in the original plan. Sometimes the road that the character is on no longer makes sense, and where the other fork goes works better with the plot.
There are many roads to that ‘The End’ at the end of the novel, but even better sometimes is when you see that it’s not ‘The End’ so much as the ‘Until Next Time…’
But the key is that you have to a) figure out where you want the journey to lead (at least at first, detours are allowed b) figure out what the point of going there is
And THEN you can worry about how to get there from here on page 1.