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Techniques for Writing a Novel

Lines of tension

There are short and long lines of tension in fiction. Short lines of tension are found in the tension creating between two or more people arguing. Long lines are found in the qualities that build plot. They are often muted by the action of a scene, and it’s from their periodic muting that long lines of tension ultimately display their power to carry the intrigue of a novel.

A model for lines of tension

In The Great Gatsby Jay Gatsby’s argument with Tom Buchanan in the downtown hotel they spend the afternoon drinking with Daisy is a short line of tension.

Tom’s vitriolic behavior toward Gatsby guides him in his questioning of Gatsby’s past. Buchanan chides and degrades Gatsby, flaunting his own disregard for his wife Daisy with whom Gatsby is dangerously in love with creates a tense moment in its one-sidedly violent parley. It’s essentially an action scene that leads a dutiful reader to turn the page wondering what is going to happen next. The scene draws on major themes in the novel—unrequited love, mysterious past, new money/old money, recklessness, and segues into a framed misunderstanding—given by Tom Buchanan to George Wilson—that leads to Gatsby’s murder. Therefore, it’s directly entwined with the long lines of tension that bring a sense of mystery to the characters of the novel.

An example of that relation between short lines of tension and the novels long lines of tension exemplified in the activity of the group while they're in their downtown hotel. The group is getting drunk tension tensions run high, which leads daisies driving back to East Egg to be erratic which leads to the death of Myrtle Wilson. It's the accidental killing of Myrtle Wilson that's linked to a long line attention and the major and the climax of the novel which is the murder of Jay Gatsby by her husband George who thinks that Gatsby had an affair with Myrtle and then killed her with his car.

Jay Gatsby’s mysterious past from which he’s suspected to have been a bootlegger or career criminal, and his connection to Daisy—their mutual pasts—create a long line of tension that courses from beginning to end of the book, relaxed or muted or less noticeable in stretches of the book. Part of what makes the book exiting to read is that these lines of tension are never relaxed. We finish the book not knowing Gatsby’s past. Since it’s never revealed to us, the book is worth another read. In a second reading the characters made resonate more clearly and we ought to know the book better from it but the mystery of Gatsby’s past remains.

The desire to read a work again is due largely to the long lines of tension found in it.

So short lines of tension are found on every page of the novel. They’re in the parts that keep it interesting—moving the story from here to there as the plot develops, allowing long lines of tension to open up and shape the story. Long lines of tension appear prominent in certain parts of a work and then are mute as the story courses through things that make it lifelike, allowing things to happen in it naturally – or seemingly naturally as they do in real life so that the dramatic elements are not obvious, but hopefully—if done well—captivating.


Before you write you should know what kind of book you're writing.

In the prewriting stage you should know:

• Who your principal characters are

It is a very good idea to know your characters through and through before you begin writing. Henry James said that it was essential before you put pen to paper that you know who your characters are and what they want. Whether this is crucial or not depends upon the author. Some people have an idea and they just write it out and others plan extensively before they begin writing. You’ll know what’s right for you as you develop a book. The thing about creating a writing plan is that forehand knowledge of what you’re setting out to do laser foundation that may help you measure your progress and encourage you to finish your project.

D.H. Lawrence planned some of his novels in winged other ones. You can pick up his book Kangaroo and read the difference in a few pages compared to a novel of his that was planned and took much longer to write such as Women in Love.

• What the book is about

• The protagonist/s—who they are and what they want

• The adversarial elements of the book being persons, things or offenses

• The message of your story

• The expected length of your story

• How long you expect it will take you to write the story

You should also set up tools to assist your writing process.

Consider developing the following:

A flowchart. A flowchart works like an outline but has a stronger visual quality to it. You may choose to draft it on unlined paper in text bubbles to illustrate action scenes and rectangles filled with text for narration. Shapes and color coding can be very useful to mapping out the sections of your book. The way that you draw this flowchart should be aesthetically pleasing and legible to you. This is a way for you to sketch through the salient parts of your book, during the earliest stage of the development process. It is not necessary to go from A-to-Z plotwise in your flowchart in your first try.

Try drafting it as much of the details as you can in a sitting or two. Then take a pause from it and go back after a significant lapse of time—such as a day. You may find that you have answered things that you could not answer before after ruminating on or forgetting it.

You may find that it takes several settings to iron out your flowchart so that it completely illustrates the major points of your project.

The flowchart is the development of your initial relationship with your book as an idea. Be messy here, sketch thoughts and plans for the story, make mistakes and leave them in, cross them out, test ideas see if they're good or not—logically speaking—this is where your ideas will ferment, so you can draw from them when writing them out later. See what works, and what doesn’t work for the text in this proto-outline.

Outline. Write the major events in your story from beginning to end in logical sequencing which elucidate how to get from point to point. Build your outline from your flowchart. This will be an invaluable timesaver during development. Joseph Heller’s outline for Catch-22, in typed form can be seen here. Originally, it was handwritten. Here is an NPR podcast discussing the novel’s cultural impact for its 50th anniversary.

Create a writing schedule. Devising when to write and for how long week to week is crucial to the development of your project. You may find for six months that you write well in the earliest hours of the day, but you should change your writing block whenever you find that the time you work best is another part of the day. Whenever possible give your best time of the day to your project.

Keep a writing log. Keep a log of what you're doing and your progress within it. A comprehensive log will cover the time spent writing, what was worked on—title and content—how many words were written during the session, note any cuts that were made from the manuscript, and a note on what should be addressed first during the next session of work on the manuscript. Have the exact place your going to begin work by stating the line in the manuscript you will be work on it again. Entries would be made each day a writing session occurs.

A session entry might look like this:

Manuscript[Name of project]:

Date__time[Month, year, hours]:

Hours[Session and cumulative hours worked on the same piece]:

Words[Written during a single session and cumulatively]:

Pages[Written during a single session and cumulatively]:

Session[What was addressed when you wrote]:

Cuts[Word count of scrapped material]:

Line[Place in manuscript to next begin work]:

Next[Content that needs to be addressed when you next begin work]:


Constructing these tools are going to give you an idea of the pacing of your book. You may alter their details during the writing process—as your creativity opens new doors and solve problems for what you’re trying to do with your work—although creating them instead of skipping them will give you a lot more insight and guidance into your process as it develops that will save you a ton of time, they will also give you something to measure your changes by.

This is not to say that you’re going to know how your character is going to figure out who killed Mr. Body or what happens to the killer as soon as your outline and flowchart are complete, but that the murder of Mr. Body is important to your book. You’ll have a good idea of the maze of conversation that they’re going to go through before they get to figuring out who the killer is.

While planning is integral to a great book, changes will happen along the way. Part of the benefit of having a writing plan is to have something to measure the changes you make as they're made.


Finding the right pace for a novel length material takes practice. The pacing you set for the work will factor strongly into the structure of the book.

You’ll get an idea of how to pace your book by creating the tools mentioned above before you begin writing.

Usually when somebody writes a novel they have at least one thing they want to say as they begin. This should turn into numerous things to say in during the book’s construction.

Sentences and paragraph length

You can make your novel read briskly by writing shorter sentences and snappy dialogue.

A great example of lines with a quick turnover can be found in the work of Sarah Kane who’s five plays features characters speaking in a quick clip.

A story can be long—written on an epic scale, and still feature brisk description and dialogue. A fantastic example of this is Vassily Grossman’s Life and Faith. The novel is 900 pages long but it never drags or bores, it doesn't even have really long winded sections. Comprised of many very short chapters covering the lives of a Russian peasant family and a company of troops in World War II, the novel’s long, fairly broad in scope, heavy in content, and brisk reading.

There is good caretaking to characters observations, mentality the humanness. The novel is actually remarkable for its betrayal of people during times of war and famine under authoritarianism.

There are passages about art—for instance Krymov’s opinion that Marx was greater than any Russian genius and Beethoven’s Third Symphony, “Eroica” is greater than any piece of music a Russian composure has ever done long that prove the psychology of the characters.

So with all its detail and breadth of topic, it reads like a quick read, just got many more pages in it. This is due to its short sentences and chapters.

It’s absolutely possible to write a philosophically waiting novel that reads at a quick clip. Just pick up the works of Aldous Huxley, Franz Kafka, Philip K Dick, or Octavia Butler, for example.

To slow the pace down, write longer scenes. Write longer sentences, longer paragraphs. The takeaway here is that you need to determine what's interesting in your story. For the most interesting aspects of your story, slow it down. Get into description deeper sensory experiences, longer tribulations.

So many writers write scenes where their characters go through a process that costs them no energy, no loss of confidence, or injures them. That makes for boring reading. Your characters have to taste the best meal, have their most arduous experience, their most debilitating conflict, within the pages of your story. Otherwise readers are going to be bored. So determine the important elements of your book and blow them out as focal points chapter by chapter.

Each chapter is a little story. Maybe you don’t have chapters you're writing an experimental novel any block of text, a section that can be extracted from the book is a story. Even if it’s fragmented. It’s still a story. An excerpt of your book should give an indication of what it's about, it needs to be interesting.

So many writers go from scene to scene in a couple of pages. When you're writing a novel, while there’s nothing out of the ordinary of short scenes, staying in the scene for a longer stretch will help you accomplish a few important things in the development of your novel.

Write longer scenes to:

Develop your characters and the world they live in.

Show how your characters live and behave around other characters. This is crucial to the reality of your book and drawing readers into its world.

Solve plot problems. If you're stumped how to tie in the murderous climax of your book. Writing longer scenes can help you figure out who killed Mr. Body, how and when they did it and what happens to them. e.g. This will happen through dialogue and/or description as the protagonist goes from one character to the next through a web of deceit and betrayal to get to the truth.


You can slow down the passages in your novel by creating description, or using backstory or flashback.

Description usually comes in between passages of dialogue or action where people or things are described. And there are two ways to do this. One way is to have short lines of description embedded in a passage of dialogue.

As your narrator interacts with other characters in the book, they will be thinking and making observations, in turn letting the reader know vicariously experience what their experiencing. This is a fundamental way to give information about characters and their experiences, and it will keep the text interesting. Socratic questioning without narrative set into it will not carry a reader’s attention for more than a few lines.

If you have a hard time believing that, try it for yourself. Read the material after and see what you think.

The other way the description is usually seen is in the long passages where the reader is spending time with the narrator as they ruminate on something—such as another character’s behavior, a philosophical theme, and experience. Description is the prime carrier of mood in psychological novels. Whether they probe in the way Dostoyevsky, China Miéville, or Stephen King does, what the character thinks and tells the reader carries the message of the book.

Whereas in fast pacing dialogue heavy books the mood can often be carried in the dialogue.

Scenes are integral to giving your readers a sense of life to your characters. Readers need to see the characters interact with each other and do things in order for them to matter to them.

Readers need to relate to what’s on the page.

Sex is something that everybody on earth relates to virgins and lotharios alike, and since sex extends beyond carnal pleasure to tenderness, romantic feelings, acceptance, families, is the catalyst of human life on earth, etc—all these things of human interest come from sex—pun not intended but I don’t mind it—as long as the readership can relate to what's being portrayed it doesn't matter what your story is about or how it’s told.


Scenes are integral to giving a sense of life to your characters.

Without seems your readership is going to have a difficult time identifying with your characters. Yes, novels exist where the protagonist just talks at the reader, within that there’s interaction with other characters, even if they’re formed by voices in that protagonist’s head or the mere influence of characters rather than upfront conflict with them—à la Thomas Bernhard—give scene where the character is doing something outside of thinking. No matter how fantastical or experimental a work is, the readership needs to relate to what is portrayed on the page in order for them to care about the contents between the covers of a book.

Here is a sketching of what’s in good scenes:

An effective scene is going to have a point that drives the plot forward. On every page of the book your protagonist has to have a reason for doing something, or for something happening to them, whether it is revealed in the moment or later on in the story.

A good scene will have shades of mystery to it. This is true of any genre. By shades of mystery I’m saying that a scene is not going to be obvious. It might be clear, but it’s not going to be perfunctory—if it's good it has purpose driving the plot to its climax it.

Whether it’s short or long makes no difference, but if the scene can be cut and it makes no difference to the plot, then question its inclusion in the story.

Here’s a sketch of what's in bad scenes:

A bad scene is convenient it exists for the purpose of the protagonist getting what they want and a short line of tension and a long line of tension or shattered in the process.

The character is a 15-year-old girl who wants to start driving so she goes to the insurance office interacts with an agent and gets insurance and then drives. And then she can drive. That is a boring obvious scene where the character is just being gratified. It breaks any line of tension at such a scene could have. Such as if the agent didn't like the girl and gave her a hard time or with the smallest amount of in fraction she was not able to get her license and her insurance. Then the characters inconvenienced and even though this is an example using an auto insurance agency as the setting for a potentially exciting scene, the scene could in fact be interesting if it’s told well and the character has the struggle past the scene to actually get what they want. It’s called real life and when it’s replicated in art you have good art.

A long line of tension would be shattered because there is no tension driving the book forward. If a book is a series of scenes where the character does something that and itself is the making for a boring limpid novel. Four for the mystery of who killed Mr. Body to have mystery two at the protagonist trying to figure out who killed Mr. Body needs to struggle along the way even if they’re adapt even if they’re adept at talking to people and they’re observant and people help them they need to have difficult situation such as conflict with other people or things to not go their way so that they have to overcome not once but again and again and again and again in order for the long line of tension to be established.

A scene summary is simply at the end of a chapter there is a summarization a summarization of what happened. The City & The City by China Miéville is a good example of this. Action happens and after it finishes, the protagonist sums up what has happened in a couple of a couple of paragraphs or pages prior to the start of the following chapter.

This is a good way to stretch the length of time your story takes place in.


Subplots are plots that work outside of the most prominent plot of your story’s arc. In the great Gatsby a subplot is Tom Buchanan’s relationship with Myrtle Wilson. This subplot is crucial to the novel because it's their affair that leads to Gatsby being killed at the end of the book. While Daisy kills Myrtle accidentally when Myrtle runs into the street as Daisy drives recklessly through the Valley of Ashes, it’s Gatsby’s car she’s driving, and Gatsby who later claims that he was driving, and Gatsby who is framed as having had an affair with a married Myrtle Wilson. It’s this lie of Gatsby that protects Daisy and sets the stage for his murder.

Chapter breaks

Chapter breaks are sections in a chapter that denote a period of elapsed timed. This is an good technique to use if don’t know how to end a passage of text.

One way to do this is with a line of dialogue that reveals a piece of information that the protagonist would want to know, without answering to that line of dialogue.

Then you can put an asterisk in the middle of the page and continue the story from another perspective, or begin a new chapter. The chapter break denoted by an asterisk may denote a period of elapsed time which can be revealed explicitly, or only implied.


Cliffhangers are used in every type of genre fiction. You’ll find them in literature to but they’re just so noticeable in genre works.

Their intention is to get the reader to want to continue reading the book, and they work well as long as they're not overused.

There are essentially two types of cliffhangers. There are minor cliffs and major cliffs. A minor

cliffhanger happens when the protagonist finding out at the end of a chapter that the person they’re pining after is married. That marriage is a potential roadblock for the protagonist but not the end of the world and you keep reading to find out what happens.

A major cliffhanger would come at the end of a novel and lead to a question that could only be answered with a follow up story. Such a cliffhanger might be discovering who killed Mr. Body but not knowing actually where the killer is or what happened to them.

While planning is an integral part of writing—as are revision and abandoning projects—a writer can be successful writing a novel off the top of their head with no further preparation. It has been done and it will continue to be done. But when you’re attempting to turn a complex idea into a published book, if it’s going to be worth anything—it's impossible to carry out without planning.

The aforementioned items are the things that one picks up from other writers. If you have writing ideas not mentioned here send them to me.

This is a field where one artist helps another and everybody works in solitude.


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