Thursday, May 3, 2012

How to Write a Damn Good Novel - James N. Frey

Read this fine book called ‘How to Write a Damn Good Novel’ by James Frey that Vinod gave me to read. I definitely need to read it as I am in search of that damn good novel myself. These books always leave me with at least one or two points that you almost always ignore when writing - but I felt Frey's book had more to offer. 

Frey starts with telling us about characters - that fictional characters must be bigger, be super heroes and be extraordinary. He says that even at being average, fictional characters should be extraordinary. 
Lead characters need to have well rounded aspects to them - they have some physiological, sociological and psychological aspects to them that shows them up as distinct individuals. Which means that we must have enough notes on them. (The one dimensional character can be the walk on parts who disappear after their job is done.) 
The three main Cs in the novel are the character, conflict and conclusion.  
Another thing about characters is that they have to be dynamic. 
They should have a ruling passion which is their central motivating force. 
Frey says the main character needs to be determined, motivated, steadfast and willful and must change through the novel.

Frey talks of conflict - which drives what the novel (or a script). 
There must be collisions of character. 
Simply put Frey's  formula for conflict is this - main character+goal+opposition= conflict. 
It is important to have the protagonist and the antagonist well-matched (ahh, how often do we forget this!).

Frey stresses on keeping the characters in the ‘crucible’, or the place where all the conflict happens. 
He feels that the best kind of conflict is the slowly rising conflict. 
The writer should be clear about the core conflict. 
Conflict can be built around several emotional stages – attitudes and confrontations.

I liked what he wrote about the premise of the novel - which is the core of the novel - the reason why you are writing the novel. 
You must find it in your fantasies, your feelings, he says. 
The premise is the neon sign and everything in the book must contribute towards proving the premise. 
I think if we get the premise right, it is a lot of work done.

Story and narrative
Frey then takes us through how the story is a narrative of events of interest with worthy characters who change as a result of these events. 
He talks of how sometimes we must begin the story before the beginning. 
The step sheet of the story is an interesting technique. 
In a few well written steps you must have the story captured on a sheet of paper. 
It sets the stage - story moving from events A > B > C > D, each one being cause and the next being effect. He says that the logic of story writing gives it organic unity.

In the climax, the core conflict is settled. Tension rises. 
The resolution is when it changes form static to its opposite. 
Resolving conflict is winding down. Secondary conflicts must be resolved as well. 
For great climaxes kook for surprises, exploit powerful emotions that move the reader, and find poetic justice in the ending. The writer must find new facets to the character. 
It should make the novel whole.
Each character has his own premise. Characters must change as a result as a result of conflict. 

View point
While on viewpoint he talks of how to choose a viewpoint – find out who can who can tell the story best. 
To get the magic of identification –  give an emotional  touchstone to your characters as soon as the story begins, then plunge the characters into a developing crisis. 
Let readers participate in the decision making process, make characters suffer. But whatever happens, don’t lose sympathy for your character.

Flashback’s are avoidable as they break narrative. If used they should be relevant to the present story. 
The question to be asked is this - can the same impact be made without flashback. 
He talks of foreshadowing, of metaphors and symbols. 
But whatever gimmicks you may use Frey feels that character, conflict and a slow rise to a climax are what count in a damn good novel.

In dialogue Frey feels that though dialogue can be direct and indirect, it is indirect dialogue that is more unique and interesting. 
To keep the novel fast paced means that you must keep your character engaged in intense conflict and cut into scenes with rising conflicts. 
The makings of a good dialogue are in asking these questions – 
Is it in conflict?
Is it trite? 
Can it be said indirectly?
Is it as clever and colorful as it can be?

Dynamic prose is where one is specific, appeals to all senses and is a poet.

In rewriting Frey asks novelists to look for the most destructive criticism. Self analysis is best he says, and there are a bunch of questions that must be asked after every novel is done.
Have you proven your premise?
Have you touched the emotions of your reader and allowed them to identify?
Are the characters in opposition?
Are they placed in a crucible?
Do they have ruling passions?
Are they well motivated, determined and decisive?
Are they growing characters?
Is there rising conflict?
Is there a sense of completeness in conflict?
 Is there no repetition in scenes?
Does the story start in the right place?
Do events flow out of one another?
Does the climax have a surprise? 
Are emotions powerful?
Is there poetic justice? 
Are characters fully revealed? 
Is the narrative voice coming across?

Frey ends with saying that scenes must be used to depict rising conflict. Dialogues must be exploited for conflict. And that the writing should be sensual - appeal to all senses.

I liked Frey's book. If there is one huge takeaway it is about the premise for me. All others regarding characters, viewpoints, flashbacks, dialogue, rewriting, climax make immense sense. I like the questionnaire at the end. It makes you go back and check once again to improve on what has been written. Thanks Vinod. And James Frey. Here's to the damn good novel then.


Vinod Ekbote said...

Hari, good to know you learnt something from the book. Hope to see it in your next book.

Harimohan said...

Thanks Vinod bhai. I have one huge learning from the 'premise' already which I think gives a lot more focus to the rewriting have on hand now. Thanks a ton.