Shaping a Novel: A Report from My Latest Workshop

I’m back from teaching in the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Workshop and I’ve been trying to get used to not having the stimulation of excellent readings by faculty and participants alike, thought-provoking craft talks, and the excitement of the daily workshop that I led. I had a group of six talented writers who are working on novels. By the end of our time together, I think each person had a re-energized plan for the work necessary to completing or revising their manuscripts. They were also a very good-humored group who tolerated my corny jokes and even told me some of their own. Also, I added to my wind-up toy collection when one of the participants learned from a former student of mine that I liked such things. Warning to my  Autumn Quarter classes at Ohio State. I’ll be bringing my new wind-up caterpillar to class!

So much of my work with these novels, which were in various stages of composition, concentrated on the shape of the books. Teaching a workshop in the novel, especially one that only meets for two hours and fifteen minutes each day for five days, can seem quite daunting, but I’ve found that focusing each day’s conversation on a separate craft element can lead to a helpful consideration of how to form the material that the writer has already conceived.

I like to start with a consideration of characterization since I believe that literary fiction exists for the purpose of allowing us to think more deeply about the mysteries and contradictions connected to what Faulkner called “the old verities and truths of the heart.” I want novelists to first understand that characters create the plots that unfold via their own actions and responses to the world around them. Then I spend some time talking about the structure that can emerge from an initial premise and a character’s response to it. In this workshop at Vermont, we used The Great Gatsby as our common text, and I spent one meeting talking about the structure of that novel, pointing out how the original premise (Gatsby’s desire to reunited with Daisy) gives rise to a sequence of events that takes us to the moment where the car that Daisy is driving, and in which Gatsby is riding, strikes and kills Myrtle Wilson. From that point, the structure that Fitzgerald has constructed from the elements of all the characters’ through-lines, can no longer stand. The characters have pushed their own desires, fears, etc. too far, and now everything must come apart, as it does once George Wilson murders Gatsby and Nick Carraway is left to make the funeral arrangements. The final third of the novel is a dismantling of all that’s been built.  It’s as if the novel reaches a tipping point where the narrative can’t continue along the path it’s been charting during the first two-thirds of the book. The characters’ actions have created events that have brought everyone to this point of no return. Of course, this tipping point and the resolution that follows are both contained within the very opening of the novel, but they’re submerged. The pressures of the plot that the characters create bring them to this tipping point, and then their lives unravel. It’s not the only way to structure a novel, of course, but it’s one that can help a writer think about the shape of his or her own material.

I spend the other days of the workshop considering issues of point of view, detail, and language. Of course, when looking at an excerpt from each participant, we talk about all five elements of fiction (characterization, structure, point of view, detail, and language) because in a successful novel they all contribute to an organic whole (I wrote this term on the board in a class many years ago, and my handwriting was so bad some students thought I’d written “organic whale”; the class book that we published that semester had artwork on the front that was a drawing of a whale with my face attached to it!). Still, I’m convinced that the most important part of getting a novel underway lies in creating characters who are capable of setting a sequence of events into motion. Characters who are complicated because they’re made up of contradictions. Characters who don’t know themselves fully. Characters whom we don’t know fully. These are the characters like Gatsby and Daisy and Tom and Nick and Jordan who are dynamic in the sense of being able to create motion. The motion of narrative. It all comes from the characters.

If you’re working on a novel and would like to hear me say more about the strategies and craft issues relevant to the writing, please don’t hesitate to post a comment and a request for me to talk more about whatever would be useful for you to hear. I welcome, as always, all your questions and comments.



  1. Karin on August 18, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    Thinking of that wind-up caterpillar and how my own novel moves more like an inch-worm. Thanks, Lee, for your insights here and at the VCFA workshop!

    • Lee Martin on August 18, 2011 at 4:56 pm

      Karin, your comment about your novel moving like an inch-worm, makes me think that the wind-up caterpillar is actually a good metaphor for how novels get written. A little at a time, always moving forward. Now, of course, revising a draft is a very different matter. It was so good to see you in Vermont. What a great conference it was.

  2. Sophfronia on August 18, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    Hi Lee,

    Great post! Since we have the inch worm comment above, can you talk about pacing? Should a novel always move quickly since we are such a fast-paced society and people like stuff fast, or should it be a combination of fast and slow? I would think readers want a breather from time to time, as long as I don’t fall into a Dickensian pace.


    • Lee Martin on August 18, 2011 at 5:40 pm

      Thanks, Sophfronia! When it comes to pacing, I always think it depends on the type of novel. Consider, for example, Marilynne Robinson’s GILEAD, which as I recall doesn’t move all that quickly, so much of it taking place at the meditative pace of Reverend Ames’s letter in which he explains, interrogates, and contemplates the past. Or MRS. DALLOWAY by Virginia Woolf, which takes place so much inside Clarissa Dalloway’s head. Why do we settle back and say, “All right, Marilynne, all right, Virginia, take your sweet time.” Why are we satisfied to listen at a leisurely pace? In part because the voice of each novel is so appealing. In part, because there’s still a narrative spine, no matter how slight, that we hang on to. In part, because we sense that something is urgently at stake in the telling of these stories, something significant for our point of view characters. So, yes, obviously a slower paced novel can succeed. The pacing of a novel built on suspense or on an action leading to complications and tension requires a faster pace, but still, as you say, a combination of fast and slow in the opening two-thirds of the book is a nice balance. THE GREAT GATSBY operates that way. Once a novel reaches the tipping point about two-thirds of the way in, and the novel moves toward its final resolution, a quicker pace makes sense. No time for any other exposition. At this point, we’re moving toward the final climax in a hurry. I hope this helps. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this and so much more when it comes to writing a novel.

  3. Buddy on August 20, 2011 at 7:50 am

    I enjoy your posts and have been thinking a lot about characterization lately – particularly characters as representatives of a larger group. I would have learned NOTHING from your workshop or anyone else’s if I thought that was an OK thing to do. So…I’m treading lightly…nevertheless, I’m completing a YA historical fiction book that in which I’m writing from the POV of a 10-year-old Cherokee boy during the 3 years leading up to the Trail of Tears – 1835 – 1838. I’m shooting for the education market so I’m very interested in the historical nuance, and the accuracy of how I present culture, environment, politics, personality, etc. But I’ve tried to walk a fine line with the Cherokee boy protagonist – emphasizing more the universal aspects of boyhood and pre-teenhood and de-emphasizing the Cherokee part, primarily for fear of misrepresentation. Any thoughts or suggestions?


    • Lee Martin on August 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm

      Hey, Buddy. First, i admit to knowing next to nothing about the YA scene, but it seems to me that emphasizing the universal aspects of boyhood is a smart thing to do. I wonder, though, whether the universal should grow from the particulars that are connected to the Cherokee part. I know that in my own essays, stories, and novels, I want the closely observed details of the worlds that my characters occupy to grow into something universal. I’m a firm believer that the careful observation of the cultural is necessary to that sort of transcendence. For that reason, I wonder whether neglecting the Cherokee part is the way to go. I can understand your concern about not getting it right, but I wonder whether part of the educational experience that you want your book to have is connected to the intimate knowledge it can provide not only about boyhood but also about the Cherokee culture.

  4. Lauren Norton on August 21, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    Hi Lee,

    Since our fabulous workshop at VCFA, I returned to The Great Gatsby to examine how Fitzgerald put together the novel’s “spine.” I am interested in how the dramatic action lines up, particularly compared to the emotional climaxes. That the two most dramatic acts (the accident-homocide and the murder-suicide) occur off the page seems to have the effect of elevating the emotional responses of the characters in the narrative. I understand that the entire novel occurs in the nether land of rumor, of myth and falsity, but I also wonder whether Fitzgerald inversion of the dramatic acts with emotional responses was simply brilliant, marking the creation of the modern novel as we know it.

    Which makes me curious about managing actions (the plot) and reactions (emotional experience). Of course, Fitzgerald was a master of manipulating narrative time in Gatsby. Do you have any thoughts about how these elements fit together structurally? (I know not all novels are the same.) What can and should be elevated? In my novel, for example, I am now beginning with a higher emotional response of one of the main characters, really setting out her desire. Next up would be laying out the story lines, add complications while holding off backstory for as long as possible?



    p.s. Set out below is a summary of how I analyzed the “spine.”

    By the end of Chapter 3, all the storylines are in place (Gatsby’s mysterious past and secret desire, Tom and Daisy’s frayed relationship, Tom’s affair with Mrs. Wilson, Tom’s expected car sale to Wilson, Nick’s move East, Nick and Jordan’s relationship, Jordan’s dishonesty, and the beginning of Nick’s relationship with Gatsby). In addition, there is foreshadowing about a car accident.

    Chapter 4 is relatively low in dramatic weight. Gatsby’s story becomes more complicated, introducing Wolfsheim. We learn backstory about Daisy and Gatsby through Jordan. Nick and Jordan’s relationship progresses.

    Drama picks up in Chapter 5. Gatsby anxiously waits for the surprise meeting with Daisy, which is conveyed in short, restive scenes, culminating in the highly dramatic moment with the “beautiful shirts”; Daisy and Gatsby are finally together, a significant narrative shift.

    Chapter 6 complicates the story lines, but using relatively low dramatic action: Tom happens by Gatsby’s house on horseback; Tom and Daisy go to one of Gatsby’s parties; Gatsby and Daisy slip over to Nick’s house; Gatsby realizes Daisy is appalled by the parties.

    As we discussed at VCFA, Chapter 7 is the fulcrum of the novel. All the story lines intersect. Here the dramatic actions, specifically the accident, and then in Chapter 8, the murder-suicide, happen off the page. The reader learns of what happened from other sources, which allows a narrative period of uncertainty as to who was driving the car. This led me to examine the moments that are on the page. First, Daisy kisses Gatsby in front of Nick and Jordan while Tom is in the next room fixing drinks. The group is tense; they go to town. Meanwhile, emotional shifts have begun. Tom recognizes through Daisy’s words that she is in love with Gatsby. Nick recognizes that Wilson has discovered his wife’s infidelity and it has made him physically sick. Then, at the Plaza, Gatsby pressures Daisy. They announce she is leaving Tom. She says she never loved him, then recants. Tom says the affair is over. All this occurs in scene. Again, the novel shifts, and I think this is one of two emotional climaxes of the novel. The accident occurs. Mrs. Wilson is dead. Then, at the end of Chapter 7, Nick observes through the Buchanan’s window that Daisy and Tom are “conspiring,” which I believe marks the second emotional climax. All is undone. Daisy and Gatsby are history once again.

    Chapter 8 is all unwind. The emotional unspooling is Nick’s. Gatsby’s death is only meaningful to him. In real time, Nick tries to warn Gatsby, he goes to work, he breaks it off with Jordan and then rushes home to find Gatsby dead. In narrative time, backstory about Gatsby and also the Wilsons is interspersed throughout Nick’s day.

    In Chapter 9, the unwinding is complete. In this chapter, Nick makes numerous attempts to honor his friend. He organizes a funeral almost no one attends. In other scenes, Jordan pretends to be engaged and Tom appears childish and filled with self-pity about Mrs. Wilson. Much of this chapter involves Nick’s state of mind, his efforts to make sense of Gatsby’s story, the clarity he now has about these people. Fitzgerald pins down his themes. Finally, Nick returns to the mid-west. The book ends with Nick at Gatsby’s empty house, recalling Gatsby’s dream.

    • Lee Martin on August 23, 2011 at 12:27 pm

      Hi, Lauren,

      Thanks so much for these excellent observations and questions. Your breakdown of GATSBY is right on the money to my way of thinking. All the story lines get set in motion, get complicated, and then move quickly to the point of no return beyond which lies the coming apart of all that’s been built. I like what you’re observing about the correlation between plot events and emotional experience. In general, I believe that a good novel finds those scenes that matter because they create a shift in character relationships. As we discussed, the plot puts pressure on the characters until something breaks. In GATSBY, everyone’s desires collide at that moment when the car strikes Myrtle Wilson. It’s interesting to note, as you have, that at first Myrtle’s death, and then later Gatsby’s, occur off the page. In a sense this is true. In the chronological time of the dramatic present, they first come to us as reportage after the fact. Notice, though, that Fitzgerald then circles back to each event, giving us details that make it seem as if each major action is happening before our eyes. The important thing to note here is that in a narrative actions signify either because they shake a character in a way that causes characters to stand in a slightly different position in relation to one another, or the action creates an opportunity for a shift that a character refuses to make. Think of Gatsby, for example, holding on to his dream that Daisy and he will be united forever even after the night of Myrtle Wilson’s death.

      When it comes, then, to a question of what to elevate in a narrative, I think we have to foreground all of those pivotal moments in which characters are changing. We might think of establishing the characters’ through lines in the early chapters and then complicating them via these sorts of significant actions in the next chapters until we reach a point of collision beyond which everything comes apart.

      I hope this helps, Lauren. As we both know, there are a number of ways to structure a novel. In the case of your own, I think that by beginning close to Nora’s consciousness in a way that establishes her desire and shows us what’s at stake for her is a great idea. Then you can find the moments of action that cause a shift in her relationship with the other characters, keeping in mind that you’ll be doing the same for your other point of view character with plenty of opportunities for the story lines to collide in significant ways.

      Take Care,

      • Lee Martin on August 23, 2011 at 12:28 pm

        Lauren, I forgot to mention that I don’t think it’s necessary to see how long you can withhold relevant exposition. In fact, I think there’s some back story that needs to be given to a reader early on. What’s more important to withhold is the pivotal moment beyond which things will never be the same.

        • Lauren Norton on August 23, 2011 at 1:47 pm

          Thanks so much, Lee!

          What you write makes absolute sense. It is interesting to see how Fitzgerald circles back to make the accident and murder vivid to the reader, as a way to deepen our experience. Interesting, particularly, the way he accomplishes this with a first person point of view.

          I think I understand the distinction between withholding the pivotal moment and simply (how easy it is to say) being judicious and deft with backstory and exposition.

          Thank you for enhancing my study of Fitzgerald’s work, and for your thoughtful guidance on mine.

          Ciao for now,


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  6. Ian on January 6, 2014 at 3:59 pm


    I see that this is an old post. But I had a question nevertheless. I am working my way through a novel that switches between four different characters and four different story arc’s (with some overlap). It is similar in structure to Kent Haruf’s Plainsong and, in fact, I am studying that text in an effort to work out some of my structural issues. I am wondering if you have any words of advice regarding novels that are shaped in this way. Alternatively, can you offer any suggestions for other books shaped in this manner that I might take a look at? I am finding it difficult to juggle the different characters and story arc’s yet somehow find a way to make them all fit together and essentially form a 5th story arc.

    Thanks as always for the great insight you provide through this blog!

    • Lee Martin on January 7, 2014 at 8:31 pm

      Thanks for the question, Ian. It seems to me that the key is to have one central storyline that all the others contribute to in some way. The Haruf book is a great one to look at. You might also check out my novel, “The Bright Forever,” which also uses four different narrators as well as the point of view of the townspeople from time to time. Thanks very much for reading my blog and best of luck with your novel.

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