Last weekend I made my usual pilgrimage back to Missouri for the annual SCBWI retreat. One of the guests was Jennifer Mattson, an agent with Andrea Brown. She joked that she was “celebrating the nerdiness within” as she prepared her speech because it brought her back to the days of writing term papers.
I had to smile when she announced that she wasn’t going to address voice much over the weekend. After all, I’ve sat through a lot of presentations on that topic over the last few years, but I don’t think it was overkill. Writers needed to know on a deep level exactly what professionals in the industry meant when they used that word. But Jennifer noted that stories with voice can fall flat if they don’t have a strong internal architecture. As E.M. Forster noted in ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL: “We are all like Scheherazade’s husband, in that we want to know what happens next.”
While I won’t be able to share all of Jennifer’s supporting examples that brought these ideas to life, I can share the basic outline of the speech:
Effective plots have:
1. Strong internal structure. (Check out THE WRITER’S JOURNEY, WRITING THE BREAK-OUT NOVEL and so on.)
2. Compelling characters with clear desires.
3. Well-timed inciting events. (Some people do start too early in their effort to grab the reader’s attention quickly.)
4. Friction and tension.
5. Carefully selected events presented.
6. Layered and inter-connected subplots and character relationships. (Read Tom Leveen’s PARTY. Tough content, but illustrates point. Franny Billingsley’s THE FOLK KEEPER is another good choice as is the speech Ms. Billingsley made upon accepting the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for fiction.)
I feel very lucky to have had a chance to discuss the structure of my novel with Jennifer, especially the timing of my novel’s inciting incident.