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How to Write a Novel, Part II (Writing at Length)

by Russell Dyer
published:  sep 19, 2017;  revised:  apr 12, 2018;  readers in past month:  903

In the previous article in this series on how to write a novel, we considered how to get started. We likened it to talking to a friend about something that happened to you or to someone else. Assuming you followed the advice of that article — or at least accept it and are willing to take the simple approach of just writing — the next concern is how to write a much longer story. For this second part, let’s dispel the notion that writing a long story is difficult.

Many writers can write a short story — they may not write well, but they can write a few pages to tell one basic story. Writing over two hundred pages, though, about the same story seems to perplex them. They just can’t imagine sustaining a story for that many pages. But it’s really not that difficult if you have some writing skills.

If you’ve had some experience writing short stories, you can expand them into novels. By the way, once you learn to do this, you may find it difficult to contain yourself, to stay under novel-length. You’ll find that every story idea has the potential of growing out of control and into a few hundred pages. Still, despite saying this, it may be difficult for you to conceive of this. So an example and close analogy may help.

Supposed that you are currently in a long-term relationship with someone. It could be with a lover, a spouse, a very close friend, or someone else who has had a major impact on your life, and you were preferably together for a significant amount of time. Now imagine that someone asks you to tell them about that relationship. It could take a while for you to tell them about the relationship. It may take only a few minutes or maybe an hour — it depends on your time limits and how polite you are about not wanting to bore others with your personal stories.

Imagine further that before you start your story, they ask you to tell how you met this other person, how you felt at the time, how the first few encounters or dates went, and how the relationship developed. Again, before you start talking about the relationship, they ask that you also tell them about the conflicts you faced with friends and others regarding the relationship, as well as problems and pleasant moments you had in the relationship. Now you have an idea for a very long story, but suppose this will not be enough for your listener.

They ask also that you include details about how you felt in each moment, what you thought at the time, the exact words of what was said in key moments. They want to know what you and the other person wore, where you were at the time, the weather conditions, the smells, the sounds. They don’t want you to omit any details that will help your listener to experience the moments and share in your pain and joy of the relationship.

They say all of this before you start because they prefer to hear a story without interrupting the storyteller. They want just to listen once you start. Since you’re flattered by this and are eager to tell someone about your relationship, you agree to all.

Just as you’re about to start talking, though, they say not to rush the story, to take your time and to tell them your story over many meetings. They say they are willing to meet you many times, perhaps for an hour every day for coffee just so you can tell them the story of your relationship, until you have exhausted the story. Ignore the fact that such a request would be odd. Just suppose that you’re willing and pleased to do this.

If the relationship about which you will speak is important to you, if the other person in the relationship has been a significant part of your life and you have been together for a few years, or if something major or tragic or wonderful happened during the course of the relationship, you will tell a story that will easily fill a book. If you are naturally a writer, you will enjoy telling this story. If each time meet your listener, you tell well that component of the longer story, if your story has an overall theme, and if it leads to something that will leave the listener thinking for a long time about the story of your relationship after you are finished, it will be a good story.

This is the same process for writing a novel. The only difference is that you can change the story to make it more interesting. You can take moments from other relationships and merge them into your story. You can take comments you heard someone else say, and give them to your characters.

When writing a novel you can make the story better, or maybe more tragic. You’re not the slave of circumstances: you’re in charge of the life of your characters. Of course, the more the circumstances and events are more like what’s possible in life, the more realistic it will read. But you can decide what happens and how people react. You can make the story of your relationship much more interesting that it happened.