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The Five ‘fs’ that make great novels
As a writer I am known for my frank and darkly comic novels and have been writing for twenty years, but it’s only in the last few months that I’ve undertaken to examine my own process as part of the ‘apprenticeship’ I offer to novelists in my creative writing course at Kritikme.com. I took a close look at the mechanics of storytelling in classic literary novels and discovered that all longer form stories are tragedies and underpinning them are five elements that date back to Aristotle’s own study of the tragedy in his ‘Poetics.’ I have dubbed these the Five F’s.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating to would-be writers the pre-fabrication of plot or rigorous and lengthy plotting. When it comes to ‘plot’ I’d rather you did not. Tools for plotting, spreadsheets and charts become an alternative to writing. You think you’re ‘writing’, but you’re not writing.
‘Now listen carefully; except in emergencies, when you are trying to manufacture a quick trick and make some easy money, you don’t really need a plot….’ Katherine Ann Porter.
The story of a novel is propelled by a major moral crisis. The idea for a great novel can best be phrased in a paradox. Try noting one down one today. It’s easy; the rub between two opposing ideas will give you the spark of a novel. Dying man learns to live. That was mine for my first novel Becoming Strangers which won a couple of prizes The Betty Trask and Le Prince Maurice and found itself on the Dublin International Literary and the Man Booker longlist too. So, put the kettle and grab a pen and write your paradox down on the back of an envelope.
As they won’t be happy until they’ve done one, I ask my Kritikme.com writers to prepare a plot and then I suggest they throw it away.
I don’t think I could bring myself to the white page every day if I knew for sure what would happen next. As I explain to my writers at the very outset, and no doubt they find it either rash or reprehensible – prepare yourself for something like a love affair. As you may know, these are finest when brief and intense. Stephen King recommends a season, or ninety days, as the perfect timing for an affair of the heart, which a novel most certainly is. He’s right. You need to change your ways and hunker down.
The structure of a novel is important, but it’s not as important as creating work that’s driven by the main character’s compulsion to avoid facing what he or she must face to grow and become a hero or heroine. So the structure must be relegated to the creation of material, ruthlessly. That’s the gambit, that’s the game changer.
‘The structure of a piece is often something that happens quite late. Normally you can only decide what to do with what you’ve got when you can see what it is that’s there.’ Hanif Kureishi
It’s the secret to novel success, but it’s terribly hard to stop yourself biting the nails of your writing hand, which is where the routine, rigour and group mentality come into their own. You’re being encouraged held to account and a word count.
Once your material has started to take life, the structure can be applied to it, helping you make sense of what you. It is only at the back end that we draw upon the Kritikme Five F’s tragedy which unfold sequentially in a longer story:
- Flaw. The situation which accommodates his or her fatal flaw or moral problem shows signs of no longer being tenable….it is shifting.
- False hope. Your hero or heroine’s remedy seems to succeed … but fails terribly causing them serious damage or a reversal of fortune.
- Flight. He or she runs from the situation and gets insight into their flaw, recognising their failing.
- Fury. In deep, he or she rages against the hell around them.
- Facing it. They emerge from the fight with deep acceptance of their mortal condition and reconciliation with their true universal nature, either in life or death.
A novel lives and dies on whether your hero or heroine lives or dies. The Five F’s will see them – and you – through and despatch us at the front door of a home truth; that our welcome on this earth is one which begs each us to be able to take leave with decency.
Anyone who would like to write a book can write a novel, so long as they read books. What’s more you can write a novel and hold down a day job. You should write it in ninety days without fussing over plot, and apply the Five F’s when your material is in your hands. Another old chestnut I’d like to roast is that this is a lonely, solo, undertaking requiring a dusty garret with a sulking cat. On the contrary, it’s good to write alone, but it’s better to write alone in great company and we can thank advances in technology for the virtual companionship afforded by a community like Kritikme for making that possible.
‘My novel took up the sweetest part of my mind and the rarest part of my imagination; it was like being in love and better. All day long when I was busy … I had my unfinished novel personified almost as a secret companion and accomplice following me like a shadow wherever I went, whatever I did.’ Muriel Spark.
Louise Dean is an award-winning author published by Penguin and Simon & Schuster and nominated for The Dublin International Literary Award, The Guardian First Book Prize, and the Man Booker Prize. She is the founder of Kritikme.com, an online creative writing course which teaches people how to write a novel in ninety days. You can get a 10% discount on this course by using the code MYNOVEL10 at the check-out.
Thank you to Book Publicist for getting me involved.