Constructing Novels: Part Two
Updated: Jun 28, 2021
In Part One of this two-part post, I wrote about how novels are often pieced together. And I mentioned that, in the first two novels in C. S. Lewis’s Ransom trilogy, there is just one narrative thread, and Mr. Lewis continues that single thread throughout both of those books. I noted, too, that, in the third book in the Ransom trilogy, he changes. He gives us multiple sets of characters and scenes, completely separate from each other, in the early parts of the story, and then begins to bring those threads together as the novel moves along.
Finally, I noted that Mr. Lewis’s third book, That Hideous Strength, serves as the prototype for all my adult novels. My stories are similar to that one in the sense that they offer not only mystery, action, and Christian affirmation, but a similar kind of novel construction.
But this type of novel construction, at first, gave me problems, especially in The Face of the Enemy. In that book – my first novel – each of the first three chapters offers a completely different set of characters, scenes, and issues. Those diverse mini-stories are then brought together, gradually, as the rest of the story unfolds.
Here was my problem.
There were so many tiny, individual threads moving along at the same time that I was not sure I was going to be able to bring all of them together without leaving some of them out by accident. Readers, I feared, were going to be left saying, “But what about the thing that so-and-so promised to so-and-so back in the fourth chapter?”
So, about one-third of the way through that story, I jumped forward and wrote the denouement, the climactic scene. Once I had written that scene, I then went back to the place I’d left off, about one-third through the book, and continued from there.
By having the end in mind, I could write the middle third of the book, and on to the very end, knowing exactly how all the individual threads would need to come together into one fully interwoven unit as the climax approached. Since that approach worked well for me, I used that same technique in my second novel, By Many or By Few.
However, when I reached my third novel, Such Thy Mercies, I found I no longer needed the jump-ahead technique. I became confident that I would be able to knit everything together satisfactorily as the story lines blended. Apparently, I just needed practice.
Finally, I’ll mention that, once I no longer needed to write the climax fairly early in the story, I found that that made for a more interesting and exciting experience for me, the author. I actually did not know exactly how the story lines were going to come together until I actually made them come together. This meant that I felt some of the same suspense, as I neared the climax of each book, that, I assume, my readers feel as they near those same climactic scenes.
This kind of “author’s suspense” even extends occasionally to character development, rather than to plot development only. For example, in Such Thy Mercies there is an important secondary character whom I present as not clearly on the “good side” or on the “bad side” until near the end. That’s because I was not sure myself! I actually waited until the end to find out, just like readers of that story have to wait.
Truthfully, I never did decide. He turned out to be how he turned out to be. The story decided for me, without my ever having to make a decision.
Now that was fun.
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