Rhonda Denise Johnson is the author of two books, ncluding her latest novel, The Crossroads of Time, available on Amazon.com. She also publishes/edits Visions with Voices, an online journal of Spoken Word poetry and narrative from around the world. She has an MA in English from Cal State University, Los Angeles, where she taught basic writing to undergraduates.
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  1. Your point of view (pov) character is the character from whose point of view the story is being told. This isn’t necessarily your main character. Because different characters will have different feelings, different thoughts, different experiences, you can write a whole new story simply by changing the pov. A story about a fire told from the pov of someone trapped inside a burning building will be different from a story about a fire told from a fire fighter trying to rescue the person trapped in the burning building. They don’t have the same experiences. The trapped person maybe feeling guilty for carelessness or thinking about her family. The firefighter will be talking to other firefighters and thinking about his job. Those aren’t his memories, his home burning to ashes, so his pov will be different.

    Example

    Trapped person:
    It happened so fast. I watched in horror as the grease fire leapt up from the pan. It licked my antique lace curtains and set them ablaze. I should have done something, but it was a grease fire and I had no flour to put it out. The fire made shot work of the curtains and by then it was so big I could hardly stand the heat much less hope to quench it. I ran to the phone to call the fire department. The conflagration seemed to chase me as I ran. There was no going back to my kitchen. **** the architect who decided to put the kitchen next to the front door of this apartment. I ran into the bedroom and shut the door, hoping that would slow the flames. I crossed over to the window and opened it. I could hear the sirens far away—too far away and coming far too slowly.

    When they arrived a handsome firemen jumped down from the truck and yelled something to the other firemen. They nodded to him and scurried about the truck. They hurried so slowly as I watched the fire ate through my bedroom door. Finally, they got their hose hooked up to the fire hydrant. The handsome guy with the piercing chocolate eyes set a ladder under my window, looked up at me and began to climb. Would he rescue a damsel in this dress?

    Firemen:
    We got a call about 8 in the morning. I burned my tongue trying to gulp down my coffee, then stuffed half a donut in my mouth in a vain effort to absorb the pain. We checked our gear and raced to the scene of the fire. Firefighters have to know the city streets better than cabdrivers. We have to take the fastest route and there’s no time to consult a map.

    We arrived in what some folks call a middle class neighborhood. Smoke billowed out a window in the middle of the block and we headed straight towards it. My truck screeched to a stop like a home run hitter sliding into first base. I jumped down.

    “There‘s a lady in that window,” I barked to my men. “She‘s probably trapped. I‘m going after her. You guys handle the fire.”

    They wasted no time, though I wished those old geezers could move faster. Thee was no time to waste.. I grabbed a ladder and steeled myself against the heat that I could feel even from the street. There was no time to waste. I placed the ladder firmly on the ground beneath the lady’s window and looked up at her. She was pretty so I flashed her my best “There‘s no need to fear” expression and began to climb.

    How many Points of View Can You Have?

    As many or a s few as you want. Some novels have one pov throughout the whole novel. Some have several. The key is to keep them separate so the reader always knows who the pov character is. In my novel I start a new chapter when I change the pov.

    Establishing Your POV Character

    Let your reader know who the pov character is in the first sentence. If Mary is your pov character, then write:

    May opened the door and Jon stepped through.

    Rather than

    John stepped through the door when Mary opened it.

    The first sentence establishes Mary as the pov character. You could conceivably start with the second sentence and go on to tell the story from Mary’s pov as we did with the story about the fire, but your reader might find this confusing because the sentence starts with John.

    Establishing a clear pov makes the story more real to the reader. Mary can’t read John’s mind (unless your novel is about Mary‘s psychic powers), so if I write a scene through Mary’s eyes, then in that same scene tell what John is thinking, I run the risk of breaking the spell for my reader. If I do that, the reader will either put the book down or read on with a critical eye. The way I handle this is I show Mary guessing John’s thoughts from his eyes, gestures or facial expression.

    Example

    Example
    Mary sucked her teeth. She could see in his eyes that he was lying. He probably was with the chick before he came here. Why else did he even mention her unless she was on his mind?

    When you have an idea for a story or a scene in your novel, toy around with it to see from whose pov it can best be told. Again, you can have more than one pov character throughout your novel, provided you keep them separate in a way that is clear to your reader.

    Stay tuned for the next chapter on mechanics
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  2. In this chapter, we will learn about writing compelling narrative and dialogue. Narrative and dialogue are the wood and bricks with which your story is built. You cannot write a strong novel with weak narrative and artificial dialogue anymore than you can build a strong house with crumbling bricks and rotten wood. So let’s look at some key principles.

    Basics of Narrative and Dialogue

    There are a few things that will strengthen both your narrative and your dialogue.

    1. Replace adverbs with descriptive verbs. Barbara could run quickly, but it would be better if she raced or sped. Tommy can speak softly, but the reader will get a better feeling if Tommy whispers.

    Exercise: Replace the following adverbs with action verbs

    1. Talked loudly
    2. Stood nervously
    3. Talked quickly
    4. Looked happy

    A thesaurus is a book of synonyms and is a good place to go to find more precise and compelling words for what you want to say. In Microsoft Works or Word, put your cursor over the word you want to find a synonym for and press shift + f7 to open the thesaurus for that word.

    2. Let your reader feel his or her own feelings. Your writing should elicit the feeling you want in your reader without you having to tell the reader how to feel. This is especially true of humor. In the words of the late Gary Provost, “If your reader thinks something is funny, he or she will laugh. If he doesn‘t think it‘s funny, you‘re not doing yourself a favor by telling him it‘s supposed to be.” on the other hand, you can have a character think something is funny. That reveals the character to the reader.

    Show Don’t Tell

    If you’ve ever taken a course or tutorial about fiction writing before, you’ve probably run across this phrase before, but what does it mean? In a nutshell, showing means simply adding details.

    Telling:
    I woks up with a bad headache and went down to breakfast.

    Showing:
    When I slipped from dreaming to wakefulness, it took a moment to realize that the pounding was not a talking drum in Africa but my own aching head. Usually, I deal with headaches by going to sleep, but since I’d just awakened, I knew sleeping wouldn’t help. I needed to get up. I dragged myself out of bed and went through the motions of making it across the floor. At the top of the stairs, I stopped, but the stairs kept moving. Groping for the banister, I eased my foot down to the first step. I was grateful for the plush carpet that cushioned my step, but I dreaded the hard tiles that awaited me in the kitchen. Taking one step at a time, I made it to the first floor where my stomach decided to join in the fun of making me miserable.

    As you can see, showing takes a lot more space than telling, so if you’re looking at a lot of white space wondering how you’re going to fill it up, consider adding details

    Exercises: Use narrative and dialogue to express the following scenarios in detail

    1. Tony waited while the mechanic fixed his car.
    2. Sarah hated her boss.
    3. Danny was scared of the dog.
    4. Tammy called the doctor and made an appointment for Monday.

    Scenery

    In my writing, I basically only describe scenery as it affects a character. In the example above, we know about the plush carpet because it cushioned the character’s foot step. We know about the tiles in the kitchen because the character dreads their hardness. Show your character reacting to things in his or her environment is the character doing something with an object in his/her environment? Does something the character sees, hears, smells, feels or tastes elicit certain emotions or bring back certain memories for the character? Describing scenery in terms of how it affects your character can also move your story forward.

    Example:
    The birds were beautiful, flying way over there. Then they changed direction and started flying towards us. All those birds flying over my freshly washed hair didn’t strike me as a Kodak moment. I went inside and watched them fly over my roof. They were beautiful, flying way over there.

    Exercise: Describe what effects the following scenes can have on a character

    1. A sunset
    2. A forest
    3. A door
    4. A chandelier


    Back Story

    Your back-story consists of the things that happened in the character’s life before the story begins. If your story begins on your character’s fortieth birthday, there may be details that happened before that time that are important to what’s going on now. Long flashbacks tend to stop the action, so it’s better to avoid them. Instead, weave your character’s dreams and memories into the action taking place now. Toni Morison is a master of this. You can get a good idea of how it’s done by reading Beloved or The Bluest Eye.

    Purpose of Dialogue

    Your dialogue needs to do two things: it needs to move the story forward and it needs to reveal your character. Avoid chitchat that’s not doing any work. It’s not necessary for the character to say “Hello” unless this in some way moves the story forward or reveals your character. In other words, there has to be something about that “Hello” that has an effect on your character.

    Example:

    Jake sighed with relief. He was alone at last. No one would know what he was doing. In the dark silence, he could concentrate on his task without any interference from busy bodies.
    “Hello,” Sonja whispered. “Is anyone here?”
    “Sonja!” Jake gasped.
    “Jake, is that you? Darling, how sweet of you to come.”
    ****. Of all people, Sonja was the last person Jake wanted to see.

    This dialogue moves the story forward because now Jake can’t do what he was planning to do. It’s a game changer. It also reveals how the characters relate to each other.

    Break Up Your Dialogue

    Although dialogue can add life to straight narrative, unbroken dialogue is limited in its ability to let the reader know what’s going on in the story and in the character’s mind. Be especially careful of using dialogue to do narrative’s job. Such dialogue tends to sound artificial because it’s not natural for people to talk like encyclopedias.

    Example of artificial dialogue:
    “Hey Sam, isn‘t that the girl we saw at Mel‘s Bar on 53rd street, downtown Los Angeles last night?”
    “Why, yes, Mark. So she is. Wonder what she’s doing way over here. Could it be an accident or coincidence that she should show up on 109th street at the same time we did? I sure did like it when we were dancing the tango last night.”
    “Too bad her boyfriend pulled that gun on you and we had to wrestle him to the floor.”
    “Too bad she has such a rotten boyfriend. I‘d take her myself, but if she‘s into guys like that, she probably won‘t like a laid back, easy going guy like me.”

    This dialogue reveals the character’s feelings and provides the reader with information that’s important to the story. But, face it; people just don’t talk like that. Break your dialogue up with memories and unspoken thoughts. Let the reader know how the characters affect each other as they talk.

    Example:
    Sam snapped out of his reverie when Mark nudged him. He followed Mark’s gaze to the girl across the street. He gasped. It was the girl from Mel’s bar. Mel’s bar was on 53rd street. What was she doing way over here at the exact same time as they were? Coincidence? Accident? “Holy pumpkin, what‘s she doing here?”
    Mark shrugged. “Tell me and we‘ll both know.”
    Sam still liked what he saw. He could’ve dance with her all night, but wrestling one gun slinging boyfriend to the ground was one too many for him. Still, she looked good. “Holy pumpkin,” he sighed. “If only girls who looked like that would fall for guys like me.”
    “You‘re too good for‘m.”
    Sam grimaced at Mark‘s lame attempt to make him feel better. “I‘m just too laid back.”
    “Lay back too far and they‘ll break your back.”
    Sam laughed and that made him feel much better.

    Notice this dialogue is told strictly from Sam’s point of view. We’ll talk more about the point of view character in the next chapter.

    Mechanics of Dialogue

    There are certain rules of punctuation that should be observed when writing dialogue.

    1. The punctuation mark always goes inside the quotation mark, even if only the last word is in quotes.

    Incorrect:
    Mary said, “Don‘t do that”!

    Correct:
    Mary said, “Don‘t do that!”

    2. When using a he said/she said tag, end declarative sentencess (a sentence that ends wit h a period) with a comma rather than a period.

    Incorrect:
    “I am going to the store.” Jackie said.

    Correct:
    “I am going to the store,” Jackie said.

    It’s not necessary to use a tag after every quotation. This only slows the flow of your dialogue. Use tags for clarity only if there’s a possibility the reader might not know who is speaking. What a character says will often clue the reader in to who is speaking. If the reader knows Robert has a gun, then a statement like, “Put up your hands” doesn’t need to be followed by Robert said. Exception is when you want to tell the reader how Robert said, “Put up your hands.” Was he angry? Unsure of himself? Hoping they wouldn’t notice he had a fancy water pistol?

    All in all, you want to balance narrative and dialogue. Too much of either on any page could mean you want to break it up.

    Stay tuned for the next chapter on point of view character.
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  3. In this chapter we will look at character building. Your characters carry out your plot. We will examine the two main characters, supporting characters and then character building in general.

    Two Most Important Characters

    Your two most important characters are your protagonist and your antagonist. Your protagonist is the main character the novel is all about. Your antagonist is the character whose goal is to thwart the protagonist’s goal. The antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be a clear cut villain like Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter. In fact, in the Black literary tradition, the antagonist is usually a fellow victim whose strategy for combating white supremacy directly opposes the strategy of the protagonist in a way that they cannot both achieve their respective goals. The protagonist/antagonist configuration can be carried out in three ways:
    1. Man against man
    2. Man against self
    3. Man against nature

    Man Against Main

    This is what you will typically find in most novels. Your antagonist can be a single character or it can be the society your protagonist lives in. Even if it is the society, the actions of that society should be carried out by real people. Your novel is made stronger if there’s one particular character in the society who is hell bent on thwarting your protagonist. For an example of individual characters playing the role of an antagonistic society, you might want to read The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. This is a long book and the protagonist faces a string of antagonists one after the other. In The color Purple, that one character is Mr. Celie is his wife, so he has a vested interest in keeping her oppressed.

    Man Against Self

    Beloved is the antagonist in Morrison’s novel. It may be said that Beloved is a personification of Sethe’s own mental anguish. On some deep level, her mind will not allow her to achieve the normal life she seeks with Paul D until she confronts the guilt she feels after killing her baby.

    Man Against Nature

    This works better with a short story, such as “The Open Boat.” Theoretically, it is possible to write an entire novel with the elements of nature as the main force keeping the protagonist from achieving his goal, but you’d have to be a master to carry it out. Instead of using nature as a blind force, you might want to have nature represented by a god or goddess or some nature spirit that can interact with your protagonist in a sentient and intellectual manner.

    Orchestration

    In his book, The Art of Dramatic Writing (2009), Lajos Egri describes orchestration as putting together characters who will naturally produce conflict. And not just any old kind of conflict, but conflict that will force the protagonist to confront his or her demons and move toward the goal of the story. In the Color Purple, Celie and Sofia are perfectly orchestrated. If Sofia were not someone Celie admires. Celie would not feel hurt when Sofia returns her presents. So you see, conflict is more than just arguing and fussing and fighting. If the story doesn’t move as a result of the uncomfortable encounter, then it isn’t conflict. It’s just arguing and fussing and fighting. In Beloved Paul D and Sethe are perfectly orchestrated. If Paul D were not a man of integrity, Sethe would never desire a normal life with him and Beloved would never decide to come put a stop to it. Things would keep on with Sethe dealing with a spiteful baby and there would be no story.

    Unity of Opposites

    Unity of opposites is what Egri calls that element or elements in a story that keep your protagonist and antagonist on stage. What makes them stay grappled in conflict? What keeps either one of them from saying “Forget it. I don‘t need this. I‘m going home.” Unity of opposites strengthens your conflict and makes the tension more compelling. Even if your protagonist escapes to a place of safety, there has to be something compelling him or her to abandon this comfort zone and rejoin the conflict. Poverty and racism are the unity of opposites in The Color Purple. After Celie leaves Mr., he is no longer the main antagonist and we have a rather long denouement. In Beloved Sethe’s love for her baby and her inescapable feelings of guilt serve as the unity of opposites.

    The unity of opposites can be tied up in the protagonist’s goal. Because the antagonist’s goal is to keep the protagonist away from his or her goal, the protagonist cannot reach that goal without dealing with the antagonist

    Building Your Protagonist

    Give your protagonist something he or she likes to do, then work that into your plot. In The Color Purple, Celie likes to sew and that becomes her ticket to freedom. In Harry Potter, Harry likes to play a game where he learns how to fly a broom. In the novel I’m now working on, my protagonist loves to dance and that becomes an integral part of her movement in the story (pun may have been intended.)

    Although your protagonist will change and grow, let your reader see that growth happening as a result of the plot. If he/she starts out meek and humble, don’t have him/her suddenly cuss somebody out. Show the reader how events led to that change. Show the protagonist fighting against change but make the situation so compelling that he/she has to change.

    Other Major Characters

    I personally don’t like novels where all the people I’ve come to know and love get killed. Other major characters should be fleshed out. Give them personalities, backgrounds and motives of their own, but make everything they do play some role in moving the protagonist towards his or her goal.

    Minor Characters

    These are cashiers, doormen, people on the street, bus drivers, etc. that play no role in the protagonist’s life other than that brief encounter. They don’t have to be fleshed out. You can use them for comic relief by giving them a memorable personality, a twitch in the eye or a funny-looking hat that you can later use to spark the protagonist’s memory of an event.

    Stay tuned for the next chapter on dialogue and narrative.
  4. To paraphrase screen writing guru, Sid Field, a novel is like a noun—a person, in a place, doing his or her thing. This “thing” provides the structure for your novel. What is the character doing and why is he/she doing it. As a writer, you have several options to choose from, depending on whether your starting with your character and building a plot around that character or starting with a plot and creating characters to carry out that plot. In this tutorial, we will examine both ways.

    Starting with a Plot

    We will use Lejos Egri’s (The Art of Dramatic Writing, 2009) explanation of what he calls a theme for this. The theme is what your story is about and follows a given structure that is usually moral in some way.

    The theme of Beloved might be running from guilt leads to confrontation with that guilt. So, if we were writing Beloved, our task would be to create a character who feels guilty about something and is running from it (in this case, Sethe is running from the guilt she feels for killing her baby).

    In The Color Purple the theme might be oppression leads to self-actualization. So here we create a character who is being oppressed and weave our plot so that she finds her self-worth and rises above the oppression.

    The prototype of a theme is This Leads to That. So we put a character in this situation and show how the character progresses to that situation.

    Starting with Character

    If you start with a character then you have to give that character a goal—something he or she wants to achieve. Then you place obstacles in the characters way that he/she has to overcome in order to reach that goal.

    A common plot scheme is a character who is quietly minding his or her own business when events threaten to bring some dramatic change into his/her life. The character spends the beginning of the novel trying to avoid or prevent this change, but events force the character to confront these changes.

    in Beloved, Sethe has made a shaky peace with the ghost of her baby. She avoids admitting that there is a problem, even when her sons leave. But when Paul D enters her life, she wants the normal life that he promises, yet the baby presents an obstacle. The guilt threatens the normal life yet she cannot have that normal life without first confronting her guilt. The full grown Beloved forces her to do just that and the story climaxes with this confrontation.

    The prototype of the character based novel structure might be Character Fights to Get What He/She Wants.



    Turning points

    There will be two major turning points in your novel. There is no hard and fast rule for exactly where to place these turning points. As you develop your ideas the place will fit in naturally. Tell a toddler who has just fallen and skinned his knee after taking his first step that walking is natural and he will look at you like you’re crazy. Yet it’s something we all go through and it does come naturally after a few skinned knees.

    First Turning Point

    Your first turning point is where the main character is forced to confront his or her problems. Up to this point your character has been trying to maintain the status quo and forestall any major changes in his/her life. Now things have built up to the point where the character can no longer ignore them. He/she must confront them or die. In many cases, this is not a physical death, but a death of something important to the character—the destruction of his normal world, the dissipation of his/her dreams, the death of his/her goals.

    Second Turning Point

    The second turning point is your major climax at the end of the story where the character takes actions that either fulfill or destroy his/her goals. This can be a positive/negative climax where there’s a positive moment of triumph followed by a negative moment of defeat and tragedy, or a negative/positive moment where everything looks lost and then the character triumphs.

    Anti-climax

    Avoid anti-climax, which is when, during the climax, the writer gets in over his/her head and resolves the problem with some cheap trick. . For instance, your character is tied up in the basement of a burning building, and because you don’t know what else to do, you bring in a sudden rain shower that puts out the fire Your character remembers a scouts knife in his pocket, which the reader never knew about, and cuts his ropes. Lot your character struggle through the climax and bring it to a satisfactory resolution.

    The Denouement

    This is the conclusion. It comes right after the climax and should be proportional to the length of the story. If your reader has invested time and emotions in your characters, he/she wants to know what happened to them in the end. Don’t bring your reader to a climax and then leave them with a wham bam thank you ma’am ending. Tie up the loose ends. Remember, your main character is supposed to change (we will discuss this in more detail in the next chapter on character building). So how has the experience of the climax changed him/her? What is his/her relationship with the other characters like now? Many well known Black novels tend to be lax on this and it is my only complaint. Endings are in some respect, more important than beginnings. Readers may forgive a weak beginning if your characters are interesting enough and your writing style is good. But a weak ending leaves your reader feeling like reading your novel was a waste of time. Do not cheat your reader.

    Stay tuned for the next chapter on character Development.
  5. Before we start learning the nuts and bolts of novel writing, let’s deal with some of our boogiemen. Face it, we may want to write—we may get a million dollar idea every day, but actually putting pen to paper—fingers to keyboard can fill us with dread. As Black people, most of us have been taught to be humble. There is nothing humble about writing. If we write things we want others to read, we must first believe that we have something to say that others will find interesting or helpful. We might interpret that as arrogance. Others may interpret that as putting on airs. Remember the words of Marianne Williamson, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” Writing is an act of defiance against everything the massa has trained us to believe about ourselves. It’s easier to sit back and complain about how Whites misrepresent us than it is to dare to represent ourselves. If you are following this tutorial on writing, you are taking that dare.
    Congratulations.

    To begin writing, we must first read—just like a singer begins by listening to music. This, however, is a two edged sword that can derail us if we aren’t careful. When I first thought of writing my autobiography, I started by rereading one of Maya Angelou’s autobiographies, just to get a feel for what that genre expected of me. Because I was unaware of the pitfalls, that was a big mistake for me. I read her stuff and said “Oh my God! I can‘t do that!” I was so discouraged by the sheer magnitude of her standard that I nearly gave the project up as a lost cause. Of course, I couldn’t give it up. It was in my heart to write that book and it would not let me rest until I did. Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, Samuel Delany, Toni Morrison, Nalo Hopkinson, et al, are not there to discourage us. They are at the vanguard of the heritage that is ours to claim, if we dare to do so.

    The Dreaded Black Sheet of Paper

    The most daunting part of writing a book is looking at that first blank sheet of paper, knowing we have to fill it and hundred seventy pages like it with words that just aren’t there. As a writer, I don’t allow myself to become overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the whole darn thing. Instead, I break it down into little bite sized steps. This will happen, then that will happen. Build a skeleton, so to speak or a story line. Writing the novel will then be filling in the flesh on the bones or taking the story from the first step to the next. The story itself will be all the things that get you from point A to point B. Then you will have your first draft. There will be a lot of going back and forth, creating new ideas and discarding ones that aren’t working.

    How do we do that? There isn’t just one way to do it. We might start with a character, and then think about the kinds of situations such a character would find him/herself in. We might start with a situation, then think of the kinds of characters who would create such a situation. We might start with a vague idea and just let it develop into situations and characters to dramatize that idea. We are creating worlds which don’t exist, so it doesn‘t matter what we start with. Start with whatever we have and let it flow. As writers, our favorite question should be “what if.” What would happen if we take a character like Uncle George and put him in the situation Uncle Harry is dealing with? Suppose we write about the situation that happened yesterday but instead of this happening, that happened? Let your imagination go for it and your story will fly.

    Stayed tuned for the next chapter: How to structure a novel.
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