Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Secrets to Keeping Things Straight in Big, Complex, Epic Novels

I've been asked a time or three how I'm able to keep facts and events straight when I write a big, complex novel. First off, kudos to the querier because they recognize there is more work involved in such a novel. Secondly, everyone who tackles these types of novels will have their own system. Here are some hints from mine.

1. Write things down.
I have multiple files that are generally categorized as Notes and Structure. When I get an idea or a snippet of conversation in my head, I write it down. Don't leave these precious tidbits floating around in your head until you get to writing that part of the story. You'll most likely forget them by that time.

I don't always write the story chronologically or linearly. I certainly don't edit that way either. That means I have to have written notes as a backup. Granted, I have a pretty good memory for just about everything I write, but why leave it to chance?

I have backstory notes files as well. I find that the more of these I have, the richer the story becomes. Some complex novels stay within one person's POV, but not usually. Most deal in multiple POVs, and that means you need distinguishable backstories, vernacular, personalities, and quirks for each POV character. And then you have all the side characters.

I have note files and picture files sometimes to help me with my world building. It's been so handy to reach a part of the story and just pull up the description of the setting to pull from rather than try to remember or create it on the spot. Especially when you don't want to present the setting the same way each time it's shown. Setting, as I've said before, acts like a character or mood setter for the scene.

Writing things down also helps you remember them better. The act of writing, literally writing not typing, has a peculiar effect on memory in the brain. I tend to jot things down by hand and then transcribe into digital files afterwards.

My notes files tend to be twice as large as the novel by the time I'm through.

2. Chunking and Recall
Chunking is a great term I learned last January when I took a course on the human brain and how to utilize it better in order to learn. In regards to writing, chunking would be taking an element of the story and associating it with other things in order to have better recall.

For example: When I bring up the word "red," based on the series I'm currently writing and publishing, I automatically think of one of my main characters, Thssk. I also think of blood, lava, anger, fire, dominating personalities, and power struggles. These next tier words lead me to specific scenes, character development, and backstory events - most of which revolve around Thssk, but also lead and connect to other characters and their story lines.

By chunking, or associating elements of the story to other elements, it just takes one word or phrase to recall much more information at once.

3. Make lists.
This one might go up under the Writing Things Down category, but I like to treat it differently. Lists are more compact, easier to read information, the overviews of the story.

In a complex novel I will use lists for:
i. Characters
I list characters by whether they are main characters, significant level B characters, C, and so on. Writing down everyone who has a name and assigning them their role in the story lets you see if your cast is too big and if you can't combine characters to have fewer people doing more in the novel. The danger with big, complex, multiple POV novels is making it difficult for the reader to remember who is who.
ii. Places and Settings
Listing your settings down gives you a great overview of what the story is doing. Do you use the same settings over and over again? Is there variety in your settings? Do you have too many settings? How can you reuse the same setting and portray it differently to help the mood of the story?
iii. Chronological order of events
Not all stories are told linearly, in fact, many really good ones aren't. Yet, it's important to know the chronological order of events as the author to avoid discrepancies in your writing. You don't want to use the scene where character A discovers the bad guy is really character Y before the scene where character Y declares they are in love with character A.
iv. Chapter and scene orders, including a list of POV characters for each
In a multiple POV novel, this list is vital, particularly for keeping track of how well mixed those POVs are. It lets me know if I've gone on too long with one story line at the expense of another.
v. Language and dialect
This has been valuable when I'm making up the words and phrases. I'm able to keep them straight, including their spellings and meanings.
vi. Historical events
A chronological list of historical or backstory events goes hand in hand with your story chronology. Backstory fuels character motivation and plot lines. Know what happened before the story and keep it straight with a simple timeline.
vii. Nodes of conjunction
This isn't one everyone uses but I have to. Nodes of conjunction are where story lines or characters connect. Say information about character D is discussed between characters X and W that will lead the reader to understand character D's actions in the next chapter. Or, characters F and G are going to finally collide with each other, when and where does this happen and how does it change the story? By using Nodes of conjunction in both a list and in my notes, I've found my stories get fuller faster and have more vitality in character development. 
viii. What still needs to be written
I'm a to-do list sort of person sometimes, and with big, complex novels, it helps me feel like I'm making a dent in the writing if I have a checklist of what needs to be done. Completely changeable as the story develops, this checklist works hand in hand with my outline and if I get stuck, I make a note about it and move on to the next item.
ix. Inconsistencies and places that need further research and development
All writers end up with inconsistencies in their stories, especially in the early stages. When I find one, I'm usually engrossed in working on something else. It helps to make a list of what the inconsistency is and where it is so that I can go back and revisit the issue.
x. How one scene or chapter segues into the next
Another list others may not use, but I like to. When moving from one POV character to another or one story line to another, I may have a cliffhanger, but something in the scene or chapter preceding the next needs to have a segue. It can be an object, mentioning the conflict or the next POV character, or even a theme. This list has been crucial in helping set chapter order.

4. "Put it together and what have you got?"
I've made mention before on this blog about creating a Story Bible. In essence, once you've created all of the things I've listed, you have made a Story Bible. The essential ingredient to successful orchestration of a complex novel.

When really considering how I keep things straight, my most personal answer is I like a challenge. I enjoy diving into multiple character and plot lines and playing with them. I love making connections between them and exploring the results. To me, it reflects life. Our actions or failure to act have an impact on others. It's never been about creating a glut of characters, events, or settings just because I could. People are complex. We're never completely good or evil. To me a story isn't about creating one hero that does everything, but celebrating the many heroic acts happening at different levels. The same thing for the mischief and malice created by the characters bent on being antagonists.

5. Index cards
Sometimes I need a visual representation of the story, especially when dealing with multiple POVs or plot lines. That's when I get out my index cards and put down information scene by scene. By keeping to scenes it makes it possible to rearrange quickly or play with the order. Usually my card looks something like this:

(Name of Scene) (Scene #)
List of key points
POV character
Key objects

I name my scenes. In a large novel it makes it easier to refer to if I've given a short clue as to what the scene is about. The scene # relates to where I have it listed in my overall outline or Table of Contents. The list of key points is pretty self-explanatory, as is point-of-view character. Rituals or themes help me classify the scene. For example: Outward Conflict, or Barter Ritual, or Point of Humiliation. Key objects refer to literal objects in the scene that have meaning or purpose to the story. They might be a weapon, or a green dress, or a tree. They are often symbolic and reoccur in the story.

Once I've compiled all my index cards I put them up on a blank wall in my office. Usually right in front of my treadmill so that when I'm taking a break and releasing endorphins I can also be brainstorming and reviewing the basic story material.

In Conclusion: 
My love for exploring every aspect of a story makes it easy to keep things straight in my head. I like to live and relive the moments. It's not a matter of knocking off a scene or chapter in order to reach a quick writing goal and then move on to the next novel. I prefer to savor and revisit. And that is why I know my stories so well and can write big, complex, epic novels.

Have a further question about anything you've read here or regarding more info on how I keep things straight? Please, ask me. Or tell me how you keep your material straight when you write. Do you do some of the same things I do?


  1. I have notes for only one of my stories. The rest I unintentionally memorize by reading pieces over and over. Pantser editor. lol

  2. You utilize recall too, Deb. That's great! Isn't it fun to have most, if not all of your story memorized?

  3. I find it takes me years to write a story. Partly because writing isn't front and center in my life. So I have notes to myself on what I plan on doing, as well as lists of chapters, characters, relationships, and places - along with anything else that may need indexing.

    I have a rough idea of where I'm going so I set up an outline which is basically chapter title, POV and what I plan on happening in that chapter.

    My biggest helper for myself is excel files that I eventually turn into a database. I then pull from the database for synopsis of chapters, lists of characters and such.

    I really like your idea of writing things down as you think of them. Write where the mind is. I am going to try that with what remains of my story as I've gotten stuck with a major battle, and I haven't got a clue to how to work it. So I can think about it and work on something else so I can keep the story moving forward.

    Thanks for this post and sharing.