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Write Incidents, Not Scenes

Read an excerpt from You Can Write a Novel, 2nd Edition by James V. Smith, Jr.

Think of your novel in terms of Incidents. By which I also mean, forget the term scenes. Start thinking in terms of Incidents.

I rely on Mark Twain for the insight:

Incidents are better, any time, than dry history.

This is one of those arm-folding tricks I’m playing on your brain, so just go along with me. Scene is a sterile term about a writing device. In contrast, an Incident is something that happens. Incident implies drama, things going wrong, conflict, people in trouble. It’s a word right out of a police report. Trauma, conflict, action, Incident. That’s where we want to be. You’re a writer who is learning to tell stories Incident by Incident, with conflict and action built right into the term.

You might as well start thinking Incidents, capital I, because I’m not going to use the word, scene, anymore in this book, except to refer to it as history.

The top three critical, or Master, Incidents in your novel:

1. The opening Incident. Call it your big fat Greek Opener, if it helps you remember.

2. The Point-of-No-Return Incident, PoNRI for short. We won’t deal with the PoNRI now, except for a couple mentions. Which leaves . . .

3. The climactic Incident, or climax. Call it your All-American Kick-Butt Closer. For my purposes, it includes the resolution of the story. But let’s not complicate things for now.

I used to tell writers to think of a novel’s basic structure in only ten scenes. Not anymore. It was Thoreau who advised, “Simplify, simplify,” So let’s cut those ten scenes down to size. Think of your novel’s timeline as Incidents in the alphabet, with the three letters, ADZ, standing out.

Where A is the Opener to your novel, say, the front bumper of the bus you’re trying to pack with readers; D is the Point of No Return Incident, a pivotal point in the story, and fairly far forward in your novel, say, at about the fuzzy stuffed Garfield ornament hanging from your bus’s rearview mirror; and Z is the Closer at the tale end, which seals the deal with your reader and leaves tire treads on her mind.

By the way, I’d include the story's resolution as part of the Closer. And, I do mean for the relative size of the three letters above to mean something to you. Size refers to importance. Clearly, the Opener is important for snagging and holding readers, especially agents and editors. I say the Closer is most important of all on the road to best-seller status because, although it’s crucial for a reader to feel connected to your story the first moment she picks it up, it’s utterly critical how she feels after she turns the last page and sets your novel down. Why? Because you want her to sign on to your sales team, and to talk up your novel to all her friends and fam.

Later we’ll discuss the relative size of other letters, too. Many of them will be pivotal points as well.

Also, as we shall see, the PoNRI isn’t locked in at D. It can move farther forward, to B or even A and even a novel’s first sentence, as it is in Slumdog Millionaire. But for now, just get the picture of ADZ. This is your simplest blueprint for a novel.

Now listen to Mark Twain’s remarks about episodes, or Incidents A and Z, from his essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction—some say twenty-two. In Deerslayer Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. The tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the Deerslayer tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in the air.

2. They require that the episodes of the tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the Deerslayer tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

Nowhere. Think of it as a place you never want your novel to be. That’s why I suggest sketching your Closer right from the top. Write a sketch of the Opener and the closer now.

About the Book

For more about crafting a compelling, salable novel, check out You Can Write a Novel, 2nd Edition by James V. Smith, Jr.

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