Your Novel as a House

Take a moment to imagine your novel as a house. Or more like an ancient Greek building, like the Parthenon. Made completely of marble, heavy marble—including the massive roof. Then imagine how strong those columns have to be to support such a gargantuan weight. One replacement column recently installed on the Parthenon was weighed in at around fifty tons! Although no one has ever weighed the entire Parthenon, architects state that just the cast iron that supports the dome of the US Capitol building in Washington, DC, has been estimated at around 8.9 million pounds. It’s hard to believe any structure made of any materials could hold up such weight.

But these buildings have remained standing through centuries, without collapsing. Which attests to the strength and reliability of the materials used in these structures—as well as the brilliance of the architects that designed them.

Novelists are architects too—architects of story. Just as a level, appropriate, and rock-solid foundation is needed as a base to any lasting building, a writer must have a similarly strong and informed foundation in order to write strong novels. Upon such a foundation a great novel can be built. But as much as the right foundation is essential, the structural integrity of the entire project must be exact or the “building” will collapse.

So if we liken the completed novel to the roof—the very heavy marble roof—then consider the pillars supporting the roof as the key to success. We want “fifty-ton” columns to support our roof so it will not only look sturdy but stand the test of time.

Not Just Pretty to Look At

Aesthetics are a main concern in construction. Architects are praised for designing a beautiful, captivating house or monument. But structural integrity cannot be sacrificed on the altar of beauty. They go hand in hand. I’ve always thought it a shame that those exquisitely crafted ice or sand sculptures I’ve seen constructed as entries in a competition were so temporal. One wave . . . or one day in a warm room . . . and those magnificent works of art disappeared. Although I understand the joy experienced in the act of creating, it seems a waste to put that much effort out to create something so beautiful and detailed, only to watch it melt before your eyes.

Some novels are like those ephemeral sculptures—adorned with lovely writing, an intriguing premise, and perfectly edited to present the appearance of a great novel. But when examined under the scrutiny of a “construction engineer” (read: savvy reader), the pillars that support the story are flimsy and weak. Collapse is inevitable, and probably has already occurred—even in the first few pages. And the sad thing is the writer can’t see it. Or upon learning the story has collapsed, can’t understand how in the world that could have happened.

She might say, “But I had a great idea. I worked out a clever, fresh plot. I have great characters. So what went wrong?”

Take the Requisite Construction Course

I’m married to a building contractor, who is a stickler for structure. He pores endlessly over blueprints before beginning to construct a house, often finding mistakes the engineers have made. He understands structure so well that he can spot any little thing that might compromise the support of the house. It could be a prescribed nail pattern for a sheer wall, or the thickness of the rebar noted to be used in the concrete forms.

This type of knowledge and deep understanding of construction is not something that can be learned by watching a few TV shows or skimming through some do-it-yourself books found at The Home Depot. A lot of this kind of knowledge comes from on-the-job experience, which is mostly how my husband learned his skills—assisting, watching, and questioning the expert building contractors he worked with for years. Hands-on experience coupled with diligent “book” learning.

And so, too, writers, to construct solid, lasting novels, need both “hands-on” experience as well as “book” learning. I use the term “book learning” as a catch-all for any type of informational instruction that is not a part of actual practice—which is sitting down and writing. This can be knowledge gained by attending workshops (online or in person), conferences, writing retreats, reading blog posts and articles on writing, studying writing craft books, and working with writing groups and critique partners. And now here, on Live Write Thrive, you’ll be given some great “book learning” you can couple with your “hands-on” experience.

An Introduction to the 12 Key Pillars

I’ve come up with a “construction” of my own, to make teaching these essentials easy. In last week’s post, I talked about the need to carefully plan a novel in advance, just as a builder would do when getting ready to build a house. In like manner, we’re going to look deeply at twelve key pillars novelists need to learn to build in order to construct a solid novel.

The primary four—likened to the important corner supports of a building—provide the main framework upon which the entire story rests. The other eight secondary pillars add the additional strength needed to hold up the novel. Once a write sets in place the four solid corner pillars, the other eight can be fashioned and positioned. But without those four major supports, the entire structure will collapse.

 The Four Corner Pillars

Since these four pillars are the big supports of your story, we’ll be spending the most time on them. These are what I see lacking in many of the novels I critique, and usually are the primary cause of construction failure. A novel that ignores or belittles the importance of any of these four pillars will be doomed to fail. Every time.

  • Concept . . . with a Kicker
  • Conflict . . . with High Stakes
  • Protagonist . . . with a Goal
  • Theme . . . with a Heart

Next week I’ll give a brief overview of these four pillars to explain why they are so important and how they act as supports in your story. and since we won’t be getting into the other eight pillars for a while, I don’t want to leave you guessing about them. Here they are:

  • Plot and Subplots . . . in a String of Scenes
  • Secondary Characters . . . with Their Own Needs
  • Setting . . . with a Purpose
  • Tension . . . Ramped to the Max
  • Dialog . . . Compressed and Essential
  • Voice . . . Unique for Each Character
  • Writing Style . . . Concise and Specific
  • Motifs . . . for Cohesion and Depth

You Have to Pass Every Inspection

Builders are required to pass numerous inspections before the house they’re building can ultimately get “signed off.” If anywhere along the line the inspector finds something wrong—not up to code, or in conflict with the blueprints—the builder has to fix it in order to pass that inspection.

So here’s the fun part! With each of the 12 pillars, you will get an inspection checklist of 12 essential questions. These are questions you will ask yourself about your novel and must be answered solidly to ensure you have a strong pillar. I’ll provide a pdf checklist you can download and print out (as often as needed) to use as a worksheet to help you firm up your pillars. At the end of this course you’ll have 12 checklists, with a total of 144 questions. By answering all those key questions (which are meant to ensure you’ve done a proper job constructing each pillar), you will know you have built well. A great tool you’ll be able to use on each and every novel you construct!

Next week we’ll start in with the first crucial pillar of constructing a novel: developing a concept with a kicker. Any thoughts on being a “building contractor”?

Photo Credit: jurvetson via Compfight cc

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  1. I love the 12 pillars concept. It reminds me of the “foundation tree” I have created for my novel. It is similar to a family tree but under the name of each character, I have made a small list of their characteristics and their purpose/functionality within the plot of the novel. Then I use yarn to as an outline of how each character comes into play (similar to a timeline). If that makes any sense. I would to place your 12 pillars within the middle of my tree so that I don’t lose focus. Did you place a pdf copy on your website yet? Thanks a bunch!

  2. I am so glad I found your blog! I’m currently editing a very rough first draft of a novel (my first!) so it feels like good luck to have found you now. Thank you for being so generous with your knowledge. I’m really looking forward to this series.

  3. It’s tragic to read a blog post like this and realize “Dang, the novel I spent last year writing is shoddy on one of the key 4.”

    Oh well, that’s part of the learning process. I’m liking this series.

    1. Joseph, the good thing is you can always rework a novel (most of them). If one of your pillars is weak, it can be strengthened. Or you can smash it with a sledgehammer and then rebuild.

  4. I hate to play devil’s advocate, but might all this methodical, deliberate construction take away from the novel as a whole, making it quite wooden & laconic, or emotionless? I agree that planning is essential, but how much is too much? Often, we can become shackled by our massive construction heap. Don’t we, like an athlete, sometimes need to turn off the brain and just let the talent and creativity take over? Still, I look forward to this series. Lord knows I’m far from an expert.

    1. Hi Jason, one thing you’ll learn about me (and a lot of writing instructors) is that I believe very strongly in structure and planning. I edit and critique about 200 manuscripts a year, and I have yet to see a halfway decent novel that has been written without careful plotting and structure. That doesn’t mean you turn off your brain or don’t write spontaneously. But working within a framework allows the creativity to flow and at the same time gives it focus so it can bloom. It makes me think of the great moment in the movie The Legend of 1900 (if you haven’t seen it, see it! It’s fantastic!). The young man named 1900 has lived his whole life on a cruise ship (back in the early 1900s) and he’s the greatest pianist in the world. His friend asks why he won’t go off the boat and see the world, and 1900 explains with a metaphor about the piano keyboard. He says that within the restriction of 88 keys, you have the potential for endless variety and creation. It is not a limitation but a framework to create masterpieces within. No framework is just chaos and overwhelming. Too much choice and no focus. What if a keyboard had 198,234 keys? It would paralyze you. So too, a simple, clean structure or framework with which to build a novel allows for much creativity and spontaneity, but will ensure the structure will hold up. And frankly, a lot of novels written without good structure also come across wooden and emotionless. Structure, I feel, has nothing to do with being able to evoke emotion; that comes with the development of character, writing style, use of language, etc. I will always stand on my platform of planning every time, when it comes to novels. Poetry, sure. Wing it, let it flow. But a novel is complex, and like a house, has many parts that have to work together. I fully believe if you will learn good novel structure, you can use it as a springboard to write great stories without feeling hampered in the least. I’ve written fourteen very different novels, all highly structured and I’ve loved the flow of creativity and the freedom to express myself and tell the story that’s in my heart in the best way possible.

      1. I just signed up for your newsletter, and thank you for these great articles. The advice above, in this response, is priceless. I’ve written a lot, and the one thing I just realized TODAY is that my piano has a thousand keys. I had no focus, no framework, and it meant I had no story. I have diamonds in the rough, but nothing worth anything unless I can uncover them and reveal their true worth. I have strings of well-writen scenes, but they don’t form into a cohesive unit of any kind.

        I am learning to plan, fifteen years into this writing journey. Wish me luck. I’m working under the theory that it’s never too late. Time to get building.

        1. Thanks for sharing that! It is never too late. I’ve known of some writers who got started in their 70s (Virginia Lanier wrote the bloodhound series that I love, and published her first in that series at age 72). I think you’ll find The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction and the workbook super helpful as you start framing your story. Let me know how it goes!

  5. Hi C.S.,

    Where will you be giving this course/lecture on the 12 pillars and where will I be able to find this PDF?

    Do you have another site?

    Thank you,

    1. Hi CC, I created one course for the year. Last year was Shoot Your Novel, which will come out in book form soon. I am writing this course as I go along. Someday it may end up as one of my workshops. So just subscribe to the blog!

  6. I usually equate writing a novel to that of sculptors creating their works or art.

    1 – You start with the concept of what you want to have when you’re finished.

    2 – You write the points you want to hit as you construct your story.

    3 – You create the skeleton for the storyline.

    4 – You throw everything you can think of to add to the skeleton you’ve created.

    5 – You go back and begin to add/remove from the material you’ve thrown onto the skeleton until you feel you’ve reached perfection.

    6 – You turn your endeavor over to an editor to see if everything is up to snuff. If not, the editor tells you what must be changed before it can be deemed completed.

    IMHO = As you can see, we’re both saying basically the same thing.

    1. Hi Robin, yes, you can liken building a novel to many different constructs. I used to paint a lot and often think of the writing process as sketching in the basic shapes and outlines of the main elements, then coming back to work in the detail, layer upon layer.

  7. CSL – Thank you for the remarkable blog and extensive labor you put into it. I find every one has some points that are expressive, new, and valuable to me. I have written for a long while – different genres, yet your instruction offers revelations and recommendations that have been overlooked or ignored. You are a gem!

    1. Sherrie, concept has to do with what the story is about–the plot and how it will play out. Theme is about the message or underlying issues behind the story. I’ll be writing more on theme later, but you can also search this blog with “theme” and read some of the many posts I’ve already written on the topic. This is a great question, and we’ll be looking at concept a lot in the next couple of weeks.

  8. since you asked c.s….. I like the analogy (close to home) but you missed a step. Ask your husband what setting up Logix blocks on an uneven foundation slab would be like. That foundation has got to be a writers background in (i don’t have a big enough WORD here) . Even before that a contractor has to be passionate about the project if the results are going to be outstanding. (I know you’ve been there done that-thanks for keeping the old wheels turning.

  9. CSL: someone (in a comment) called you a gem — i second that and more — you are a sparkling gem, meticulously presenting your work to total strangers. I happened to read this post right as I was working through some serious doubts about finishing my second novel – thousands of hours of work, I told myself, and you are lousy at promotion — which you have to get into if you want to sell it, so what’s the point? Your post reminds me that the craft of writing itself is such a great pleasure — to construct a beautiful story or piece of work from a single concept — what a joy!

  10. It amazes me how you always manage to write a weighty post on the very issue in which I am mentally swimming (drowning?…lol) (btw – my def of “weighty”: containing insights it may take me years to digest). Yesterday, I finally got a glimpse of how I might approach a non-fiction exploration of romantic love (vis-à-vis cosmology and evolution theory) that is my life’s work – one I’ve been mentally developing for 24 years. (I’m one of those writers who mentally tumble ideas into essence. These took a whole lot of tumbling…lol.) I’m finally ready to do this, and look forward to using your generously shared knowledge to ensure I’m hitting the right marks on my path to….well…who knows! Thanks.

    1. I’ve been thinking about all these elements for years and how so many writers just miss the point of what and why they are attempting to write a novel. We all need to step back at times and ask hard questions so that our “house” will hold up. Thanks, Penny, for the kind words.

  11. A very clever analogy! I like to think of my writing as a typical New Zealand house – flexible, because it is timber, historically fairly new, but linking back to Europe and European arts of all kinds, surrounded by nature, European origins but distinctly New Zealand.

  12. Oh my, where have you been for the past six years? I am very thankful to have stumbled upon your site filled with a ton of great direction and blueprints. With notebook in hand and stories in my head I will now have an inspector to help me along this long and exciting path! Thank you!!!

    1. I’m glad these posts are helping you 🙂 You might like to check out Writing the Heart of Your Story too, since it has just about everything a writer needs to know how to set up a great novel.

  13. Thank you very much for the article, I especially liked the part about the fact that the reader is like construction. But when examined under the scrutiny of a “construction engineer” (read: savvy reader), the pillars that support the story are flimsy and weak.
    Fortunately, I work in this field as a civil engineer, and I am engaged in construction, I accept contracts at the engineering marketplace, and therefore I can say with confidence that you are 100% right here. Thanks for the good stuff!

  14. Hi I have finished a manuscript and realized how rubbish it was. The storyline great but boy to try and get the hook into the reader, that’s another story.
    I am 77 and have written my first book. Thinking of a follow up on the first book. I would really love to know more about those checkpoints. At the moment I am editing the manuscript and really need some constructive criticism.

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