Over the last few months, I've found myself replying to emails from several people on the topic of how to write long-form stories. Mostly this has involved critique of particular stories, but I've also given some general advice. As these query emails keep coming in, and as I have less and less time to reply, I figured it would make sense to post my advice publicly.
What follows is an overview of the main issues that people have problems with when they transition from short to long stories -- in fact, they were the things I had trouble with too (and still do, sometimes!).
These three things are:
- how to turn a scene
- how to use theme
- the importance of re-writing.
1. How to turn a scene
Turning a scene means that you are writing with a double purpose. A turned scene is not only about the obvious incident or action that's happening (the plot), but also about the underlying tension that threads through the whole story (theme). This double purpose is most effective when the centrepoint of a scene works as a kind of see-saw: the emotional direction of the scene flips, allowing the reader to suddenly see things in a whole new light.
Figuring out this technique changed my approach to writing, because it meant I could get the reader really emotionally invested; when done well, turning scenes means that the reader gets a bigger bang when they hit the story's climax.
In long-form work, turning your scenes becomes especially important, because you have the space to really build momentum with a series of emotional flips; these kinds of turned scenes become the crests and troughs in your narrative, giving the piece shape, and involving your reader in the main character's successes and failures.
I've talked about this technique in more detail in this post: The Formula for Writing Sex Scenes (it's the bit about negative/positive build).
I also highly, highly recommend Robert McKee's Story as it gives the best description of this technique I've ever come across.
ETA: In comments, lavvyan pointed out that it was hard to understand the technique of turning a scene without an example, so here's one from my own fic.
In "A Change of Seasons," the theme of the story is: John's fear of intimacy. This is what makes it so hard for Rodney to seduce him.
I turn each of the five scenes in this story--they flip emotionally at least once--and if you look you'll see that the flips happen without me ever explicitly writing that the problem is John's fear of intimacy. John gives lots of reasons for his actions (DADT is one of the biggies, as is homophobia), but those are his justifications to himself, not necessarily the objective truth.
Let's look at scene 2, because it's nice and short.
A change of seasons, and they're lying side by side on a patch of crushed grass, sharing a bottle of Zelenka's hooch. The Athosian's harvest bonfire roars a short distance away, sending embers shooting up to trace fingers of orange across the bright starscape overhead. In the background, the drums are still thudding, a chorus of joyous voices raised in counterpoint, even though few people have enough energy left to dance. The murmur of sleepy conversation fills the darkness on all sides.
Rodney's shoulder is a warm pressure anchoring John to the earth despite the way the alcohol is making his head spin. He feels mellow and connected in a way he hasn't for a long, long time. It's easy to glance over at Rodney's familiar profile, harder to fight back the urge to reach out and lace their fingers together.
Still staring intently at the stars, Rodney sighs and lets the bottle slide away to rest in the crook of his elbow. "Do you ever feel lonely?" he asks, his voice full of melancholy, but not slurred enough for John to think it's just the booze talking.
"No," John says, and it isn't a lie. He tucks his hands into his armpits and watches the rise and fall of cloth and skin as Rodney sighs again, the downturn of his mouth an elegant line in the semi-darkness. Not even close to a lie, with Rodney's shoulder warm and solid and familiar against his own, and John thinks no prize is worth risking this.
Rodney turns his head, looking John straight in the eye. His gaze is steady and knowing, not at all drunk, although tomorrow they'll both pretend he had been. "Don't you ever get tired of saying 'No'?"
John's the one to break first, looking away to watch the bright dance of embers burn through the night.
A long time later, when Rodney's breathing has evened out and deepened into sleep, John says, "Yes," and the word comes out so raw, it hurts his throat to say it.
As you can see, in this scene John is contentedly lying on the grass with Rodney. Then Rodney tries to have a conversation about intimacy, but John refuses to discuss it. The flips go something like this:
1st Flip [Positive to Negative]
John is almost snuggling Rodney: John=Content
Rodney asks John if he's lonely, and John pulls away: John=Uncomfortable
2nd Flip [Negative to More Negative]
Rodney pushes the issue, John completely disengages: John=Denial
Finally, John admits he's lonely to himself: John=Miserable
Through all this, John never says he's afraid of intimacy, even though it should be utterly clear that he is by the end of the scene.
In the next scene of the story, the emotions flip back to positive, because Rodney has found the compromise with the VR. John's main problem is still not resolved, however, as he is still afraid. And so the story goes on until it's resolved.
If you compare this to scene 2 in my badfic parody, you'll see that badfic!John's motivation is completely spelled out. The scene doesn't show you that he has a plan to seduce Rodney, or that he's feeling a pang of conscience -- it tells you those things straight up. There's no subtext or second meaning for the reader to find (well, except for parody :), and although there's been an attempt at flipping the emotional content from pleased to guilty, it's unconvincing, because the reader doesn't feel it.
2. The use of theme
The single biggest weakness I see in a lot of long-form work is that while the plot is strong, there is no thematic build. The main character doesn't seem to go on much of a journey, or end up anywhere new at the end. This ties in with what I was saying about turning scenes in order to engage the reader's emotional investment with your story, and ultimately building towards a payoff climax. Basically, not only your plot, but also your theme, should rise and fall and climax during the novel.
Creating both an over-arching thematic structure and a strong plot is difficult, because it's really hard to keep all the elements in your head as you write. That comes with practice, but you should expect to have to re-write a lot during your first long piece.
Theme and characterisation are the two building blocks used to create over-arching story structures. But how do theme and characterisation differ from plot?
Let's look at an example. Imagine a story which has a strong science fiction plot about WWIII. In this story, Jane, a scientist, created the bomb that destroyed much of the world. When she arrives at a survivor's camp, she meets Wanyi and his father -- they are from a neutral country which has ended up an accidental casualty of her bomb.
If this story had a strong plot but no strong theme, after reading it I'd be saying things like:
- It's about what would happen if America wasn't entirely destroyed after WWIII; it's about building new alliances.
- It's about one damn thing happening after another, and trying to deal with it well.
I might also give an outline of the specific events that occurred. Basically, the plot is what actually happens in the story, and these descriptions focus on events.
These aren't bad descriptions, mind you, but they're not about universal themes which carry emotional weight. If the story had a stronger theme to tie it all together, I'd be saying something like:
- This is about love, and the way Jane's love for Wanyi parallels her love for her people, and also Wanyi's father's love for his people; it's about Jane's love for science, even now, and Wanyi's love of art; and it's about how the remnants of the military and the old world order fail at any kind of love.
- This is about responsibility; for science, for war, for being good citizens. This is about how Jane can only find peace when she takes responsibility for loving Wanyi, for asking for trust again after betraying it, for teaching ethics as well as science, for making wrong choices and living with them.
Can you see the difference?
In order to create these deeper themes in your work, you need to focus on characterisation. The questions you need to ask are:
- Who is on the journey here?
- Where do they start and where do they finish (intellectually, ethically, emotionally, physically)?
Usually, it's the viewpoint character who is on the journey. The biggest mistake first-time long-form writers usually make is that the main character doesn't change -- they are perfect when the story starts, and perfect at the end. They may have achieved physical goals (deactivated the bomb), but not emotional ones (overcome guilt).
To frame this in our WWIII example, if Jane doesn't go on a journey, the story would start with her feeling guilty for creating the bomb that started the war, and she would end up still feeling guilty. On the other hand, if the story did have a strong theme, Jane's journey would take her to a new state: making amends and coming to peace with her guilt, perhaps.
Putting Jane aside for a moment, in a long work the minor characters also need to have these kinds of arcs. Their subplots are used to comment on the main theme by showing the reader variations in it. Subplots can also be used to enlighten the main character. So, for instance, Wanyi can be battling a different type of guilt -- that of leaving his birthplace and adopting a new culture as his own; and Wanyi's father can have already passed through guilt due to his own part in an earlier war. Jane will intersect with their responses to guilt, and it will put her own into a new perspective: she will see that there are ways to live with guilt, and ways to make amends, and ways to move past it. You might also have a character who is trapped in her guilt -- who is eaten up by it. Let's call her Janus. Janus is the nemesis, living the counter-argument. Janus may also start her story with guilt just like Jane, but her resolution is opposite in some way to Jane's: she may become a psychopath, committing genocide; or she may be destroyed by her guilt, committing suicide.
As well as forwarding the theme, the ways in which these major and minor character arcs intersect creates tension, incident, and major turns in the plot. This tension is crucial, as there needs to be a sense of risk in order for the reader to become invested in the main character's journey. The plot is also important, of course, but plot tends to get discussed a lot in most How To Write books, so I won't focus on it here (you can find recommendations for three useful books with a focus on plot in this post).
Again, Robert McKee's Story does a great job of showing how to build theme and create a sense of risk. McKee's focus is on constructing screenplays, but the theory is applicable to all storytelling, and it's brilliant. I use an adaptation of his method when mapping out longer arcs, so I can keep theme and character journeys in mind while I write the incident.
Basically, I map the story out into broad arcs or acts. It's usually an odd number (3 or 5), and in every act two things happen: something major about the theme is revealed through the incident; and the character on the journey has a major setback, or a major step forward.
The character journey can't all be in one direction; if the reader feels confident nothing bad can happen (or only bad can happen), there's no tension. So you need to flip between the two:
good: bad: good: bad: good.
Sometimes you might shake up the reader by changing the pattern:
good: bad: bad: bad: good.
And so on. You've probably noticed that this is related to the discussion of turning a scene in point 1, above. Turning a scene is a writing technique which allows you to use theme effectively.
ETA: Thanks to queries by crysothemis and glossing, I went and looked through my PhD archive, and found this scan from Story. It gives a sense for not only how the events (or theme) rise and fall to create a positive or negative climax (comedy or tragedy), but an example of how combining counterpoint story strands gives a deeper meaning to your work.
It is quite possible to find long-form works which have lovely line-by-line writing, interesting incident, nicely drawn characters, and a good plot, but which still aren't entirely satisfying. When that happens, it's nearly always because they lack the sense of build, risk and change which comes from a strong use of theme.
ETA: Again, thank you lavvyan for prodding me to explain more clearly.
In "A Change of Seasons" we can see how John's journey and the theme of fear of intimacy intertwine. John is afraid of intimacy at the start of the story, but also wants it. That's made clear by his anger at Rodney for seeming to pull away, and also by his anger at mirror!John's actions.
By the end of the story, John has moved through different stages of denial and acceptance and compromise, until he comes to a point where he has to make a choice of loving Rodney openly or not -- he never actually loses his fear of intimacy, but he's learned to accept it and move on. He's been on a journey -- he has changed by the end of the story.
The way this relates to theme is that fear of intimacy underpins all of the incident in the story (everything that John does, and also everything he doesn't do), and, as I discussed above, it's also crucial to most of the emotional flips that happen in each scene.
To give another example: in a hypothetical SGA novel, John could be running away from Wraith, or fighting a seamonster, or dreaming, or eating a turkey sandwich, or arguing with Elizabeth -- anything really -- but underneath that obvious action, the theme would be pushing him in certain directions, making him react in certain ways, and the reader will notice both levels of the story at once. The use of theme will allow the reader to build a more complex and convincing picture in their head.
This technique can be used in just about any story, regardless of genre or length, although it really comes into its own with longer works. However, in a longer work, there would be more of these thematic strands interwoven into the story, as each character's journey interacts with the major theme, as well as the plot, sub-plots, and the other characters.
One of the ways you can see readers engaging with stories on a thematic level is through reading their comments and reviews. Remember my examples of plot-based versus theme-based reviews I gave for the WWIII story *points up*? Compare those to the comments on "A Change of Seasons" (or even moreso, the comments on "Sheppard's Choice"). You'll see that there are a whole heap of different interpretations for why John does what he does -- that's the readers' take on theme (rather than events). But even though people read his motivations differently, each reader has deeply engaged in John's journey. This is in large part because I've never explicitly said, it's about fear of intimacy (or, it's about John wanting to be a woman in "Sheppard's Choice"), so each reader has had the space to map John's actions to their own experiences. The theme acts as a unifying principle as I write, but the reader can choose how to interpret it. Theme is kind of like silly-putty or elastic -- its core make-up stays the same, but people can push it into different shapes as they read.
That wouldn't be true if I went ahead and wrote, "John is afraid of committing to Rodney" -- there's no room for interpretation there. And that's exactly what I did in the badfic, and why it's a badfic.
It's this space to read in a subtext that makes a story powerful. And you can't consistently write a convincing subtext unless you know the theme and character journey of your story.
Long works take substantially longer to re-write than short works, if you compare the time taken on a scene-to-scene basis. That's because of the need to get the balance right between theme and plot and characterisation; when you change one bit, you have to re-write lots of other bits too so they match up.
Whatever amount of time you've set aside for re-writing... triple it! And make sure you have a good first reader you can get feedback from, because the process is so much less frustrating if you have someone you trust to tell you when stuff isn't working.
Phew. I don't know about you, but I think I need a cup of coffee now! I hope you find these three pieces of advice useful. Keep in mind, they are really only a starting point, because the best way to learn this type of stuff is by writing, getting it wrong, and re-writing.
As always, if you have further questions, feel free to drop me a comment. Just keep in mind that I haven't quite finished semester yet, so it might take a while for me to reply.