If you had to define the single most important feature of a good book, what would you say?
That a good book is not too long? Or that it’s got short sentences? Maybe it has characters who are just like you, or characters who you’d like to be.
Perhaps it should have romantic vampires who dream of the sun? Or adolescent wizards with disturbingly phallic wands, or muscular men of action and very little brain? Or maybe it just needs a nice glossy cover?
Here’s a revolutionary thought: how about a book that simply tells a story well and leaves the reader satisfied?
But how do you write a good book?
This is a subjective question. What one person likes, another simply won’t, and a third will be “meh”. What if you’re writing a 19th Century romance? People who like vampires might go for it, but the teen-wizard and action man crowd will probably hate it!
To paraphrase a famous personage, you cannot please all of the readers all of the time, and you shouldn’t try. You should only be trying to please your readers!
But just because you’re writing a 19th Century romance for lovers of 19th Century romance doesn’t mean that these readers will automatically like your work. You’ve got to do your part to make sure your story ticks all the boxes and delivers a satisfying experience, and for that we have a number of tried and tested methods referred to collectively as The Formula.
Many people scorn the formulaic approach, but the awful truth is that it works!
Well, it’s not so awful. A formula has two key advantages: it makes it easier for you as the writer to structure your ideas and it ensures the reader a satisfying experience.
Before you sneer or despair or just sigh, remember that it’s perfectly possible to be creative while using a formula approach. It’s especially helpful for new writers to learn their craft and finish some projects (new writers have a hard enough time actually finishing things on a good day). And it’s also interesting that, when someone declares their intention to write a book purely for art, how they unconsciously end up conforming to a recognisable formula structure.
It’s almost as if good writing follows some sort of law of nature!
A formulaic approach really just means a structured approach, and the best model to follow hasn’t changed in years. It was inspired by the ancient Greeks, draws on the best work of luminaries like Shakespeare, and was codified by a 19th Century German gentleman called Gustav Freytag (1816 – 1895).
I didn’t pick 19th Century romance as a working example by accident!
In 1863 Herr Freytag wrote his essay ‘Dramatic Techniques’ which described a process by which every novel can be broken up into five distinct stages.
We call this process Freytag’s Analysis and the stages are more or less as follows:
1. Exposition – the general introduction, setting the scene, introducing the characters. This is where you ask your “What if?” question.
2. Rising action – what Aristotle called the “complication”. This is where we define the conflict that will fuel your story: the relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist.
3. Climax – this part is pretty self-explanatory. It’s the part we’ve all been waiting for. Or, as they say in the porn industry, the “money shot”.
4. Falling Action – the immediate consequences of the climax. Usually a very short stage that is really a precursor to the final act, but often a necessary transitional stage for narrative purposes.
5. Dénouement – what Aristotle called the “unravelling”. The resolution, the tying up of loose ends and the final outcome.
I said the stages are more or less as above because there are several variations that have been developed down the years, with different titles for the stages which are sometimes presented in a different order.
For instance, Stage One: the Exposition, gets very little attention these days. Whether in books, movies or games, the tendency is to throw the reader/viewer/gamer straight in at the deep end, or in at Stage Two: the Rising Action, with very little explanation. Sometimes exposition comes next, but often as not you’re just supposed to pick it up as you go along. This is all a consequence of the general belief that you’ve got to “grab ’em by the throat” from the very first line of text or second of film: a belief that Hollywood exemplifies and, let’s face it, they make millions doing it.
So, like every method, the five stage structure has its critics, most of whom point out that many modern stories, whether they be novels, movies, stage plays or games, don’t follow the same basic structure and yet are still successful. These are valid points. By way of comparison I recommend you look up the Eight-Point Story Arc by Nigel Watt, or Joseph Campbell’s monomyth pattern which gave us the so-called ‘Hero’s Journey’.
But at the same time don’t feel required by some unwritten law to write within these structures. Don’t be afraid to experiment, or adapt the structure of your novel to your own needs. In terms of Freytag’s influence on my own writing, I have a preference for placing the climax stage in position 4, and inserting one of Aristotle’s complication stages in position 3, and doing away with falling action entirely as I often feel it’s redundant. But that’s my personal view. I encourage you to read around the subject, experiment with different methods in your own writing, and develop your own opinion.
To quote the Dalai Lama, “Learn the rules so you know how to break them.”