Novel-Planning: Part 3

I’ll attempt Part 3 of the Story Plan Checklist, despite my congested brain and throbbing lymph nodes (I’m not looking for pity; I just enjoy grotesque details). The usual, repetitive disclaimer:  The method, steps, and ideas belong to Karen Wiesner. You can learn more by buying her book, From First Draft to Finished Novel, or the January issue of Writer’s Digest, OR by visiting their website (which includes downloadable story plans, worksheets, checklists, and more!). I cannot guarantee that the Story Plan Checklist will work for you… or even for me. Consider yourself warned.

Part 3: External Monologues, continued

1. Symbolic Element.  This isn’t something I could describe effectively, even on a healthy day. I admire and respect symbolism when I recognize it in fiction, but I personally have a lot to learn about incorporating symbols into my stories. So I’ll have to let Wiesner explain this step. She says, “Another effective means of developing character is to give him a symbol that defines him, defines the situation he’s in, or both… every character should have only one associated symbol.”  She goes on to explain that if you have two symbols, one should be subtle and the other well-defined. What can serve as a symbol, you ask? It could be a tangible object that represents the character, setting, or plot. OR it could be a character’s defining trait, mannerism, hobby, vice, disability, or disfigurement.

When I read “disfigurement,” I instantly thought of Harry Potter’s lightning bolt scar. Geez, I don’t know why all my examples lead back to Harry Potter. Let me broaden my horizons a bit… hmm, Sarah Dessen is very good at symbols and themes. They’re clear enough that even I can spot them. For instance, in LOCK AND KEY, I’d guess that the key necklace Ruby always wore was a symbol. I recently read DEAD UNTIL DARK by Charlaine Harris; the protagonist, Sookie Stackhouse, has the defining trait of being telepathic. Most of the plot revolves around her ability (which she refers to as a “disability”), so perhaps the telepathy is a symbol that defines the plot and character. Many stories have characters who are special in some way, and that uniqueness propels the story forward. Or the character could be a normal human with a strange job or hobby, a different appearance, a fabulous keepsake, etc. Or I could have no idea what I’m talking about.

For my story, I think Kari’s symbol is the river. It defines the setting and Kari herself, for reasons I can’t explain without giving away the entire plot. However, I’m not sure yet what Blaine’s symbol should be. While it’s ideal to come up with symbols before you begin the book, it’s certainly not mandatory. During revisions, you can always go back and weave in threads and hints of symbolism. As Wiesner says, “The point is to enhance or contrast, not take over the story so the symbol becomes the focal point… the symbol must be cohesive and not thrown in for the fun of it.” A good symbol will connect the plot, setting, and characters, developing the story in deeper ways. So, yeah, good luck with that.

2. Setting Descriptions.  This step comes more naturally to me. I decide on a setting without much conscious thought, mainly because my stories tend to rely on nature. My first novel centered on a forest preserve in southern Illinois; all I had to decide was what road Ivy lived on. Kari’s novel depends on a river, thus I found an appropriate river town for my setting. In both books, the settings reveal something about the character’s personality and create a stage for conflict and suspense. The settings mean so much to my characters and are crucial to their growth and development throughout the story. 

I think everyone knows what I’m talking about when I refer to effective settings. TWILIGHT in rainy Forks; ANNE OF GREEN GABLES in gossip-rich Avonlea; THE BOOK THIEF in Nazi Germany. These stories wouldn’t be the same without their settings, wouldn’t even make sense. Think of the genre “urban fantasy,” the label alone implying dark, gritty cities with a secret underworld. Every story is built on a setting, which should hopefully enhance the characters and the story’s mood (or you could contrast the setting with the mood, like a dark story in an otherwise pleasant place. Might be tricky to pull off though, in my opinion). 

Wiesner gives some great advice about setting:  “A character notices the things in his setting that are important to him… describe only what means the most to the character, what enhances the mood you’re attempting to create. If the description doesn’t advance some part of the character, setting, or plot development, it’s probably unnecessary.”

Well, that wraps up external monologues. Tune in next Tuesday for the final installment of the Story Plan Checklist—internal monologues. If anyone could explain symbolic elements to me, I’d greatly appreciate it. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on settings—how do you decide on settings for your stories?? Have a great week, everyone!


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