First, the above is rather true. I’m always adding onto a story, so keeping it short is a challenge. That’s not what this post is really about, but it connects to how I write my stories. It’s why my styles come down to three methods.
Realizing this took longer than it should have. You’d think I’d have been aware of it long ago, but I was a yutz. (That’s a word, spellchecker!) It was when I was struggling with ‘Phi Beta Files’ that I figured things out. The more I tried to organize my thoughts on this series, the more frustrated I got. It didn’t work with one method and it fell apart halfway through with another. The third option that came out of the shadows is what saved this series. Got me wondering if this is common too.
What are my three styles?
Traditional Chapter Novels
This is what I typically do. Every chapter has a number and covers a piece of the story in various sections. Legends of Windemere and War of Nytefall use this. Things are sectioned off by cliffhangers and transitions with no closure because even a subplot requires multiple chapters. I focus on 3-4 sections to tell a piece of the story and arrange characters in positions I need for the following chapter. Some are used to reduce the tension and allow for a fresh build up. Suspense is carried across the whole thing for a final payoff.
Personally, I find this rather simplistic in structure, but it has a downside. Your characters and plot need to be able to carry everything from start to finish without any breaks. They need to ride a very long roller coaster and take the audience along for a ride. One slip in chapter 5 can wreck the rest of the book. Editing means changing a lot more than what you have in that chapter too. So, you need to be careful since the simplicity of structure hides the complication of storytelling.
This didn’t work for ‘Phi Beta Files’ because the adventures were coming off rather episodic in my mind. It’s all about madcap antics while the main plot is going on with a final event to bring the school year to a close.
Short Story Collection
To date, I’ve only done The Life & Times of Ichabod Brooks with this style. I have more in various books since this works best for non-series ideas. I have to be careful here too because I can make things too big, which ruins the structure. This is why I try to keep myself from going more than 30 pages for a short story. 10-12 stories per collection would mean 300-360 pages, which I figure is good for this type of thing. It’s only here that I really worry about page count because short stories are supposed to short. At some point, I hit novella and novel levels, which requires that the stories get published separately in my mind.
Of course, the story structure is important and why I’m here. With a short story collection, I have at least one recurring character. Growth doesn’t have to be done on the same scale as the novel since you’re capturing short clips of their life. Foreshadowing isn’t necessary and suspense is contained within each story. I have a smaller cast too, so it’s easier to focus on each one instead of spreading out the time to flush everyone out. I feel less pressure on myself here because there’s no real ‘big picture’ beyond the character succeeding in whatever trouble he’s gotten into. This gets easier after the first story as well. For example, Ichabod Brooks is quickly established in his first story, so I don’t have to do it again at the same level. The reader knows him as he enters a new adventure with the same attitude and experience. So, I get a kick out of expanding his supporting cast and the world since Ichabod is the static figure.
‘Phi Beta Files’ made it through the first book with this style. At least in my mind. It was getting shaky at Book 2 due to repetitiveness. By Book 3, I realized that the short story collection wouldn’t work to bring the characters to the end of their road. I considered starting with a collection and then jumping to novels, but then I remembered that I had a third option.
The Hybrid: Short Story Chapters
Even though Bedlam failed in terms of sales and success, it possesses a method that I need to revisit at times. Every book had an overarching story, but each chapter had a new stage/adventure that stood alone. For example, Cassidy and Lloyd had to get from New York to California in their first adventure. Every chapter was an obstacle that they ran into and took care of in a short story fashion. Unlike Ichabod, their next challenge came right after their last, so they would have to show growth like in a classic novel. Yet, their actual actions were fairly contained within the context of the ‘episode’. This is why I call it a hybrid. The method possesses:
- A classic novel’s overarching plot and character development.
- A short story collection’s contained narratives and ebb/flow suspense pattern. This is also why I named the chapters instead of using numbers.
‘Phi Beta Files’ is going to be like this because it possesses a core plot for each book, but the characters work best with short story like adventures. They will need to grow, but activities between adventures will be dull. Nobody needs to see them go to classes when their are parties, weekend outings, and mayhem going on elsewhere. By using the hybrid style, the more mundane parts can be skipped, but you’ll still see or hear about them going on. At least that’s the plan.
So, what kind of novel style do you use?