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The Algonkian Author Salon Solves The Quiet Novel

Below are a series of articles written by Michael Neff, contributing editor to Author Salon and all dedicated to solving the quiet novel.


What chances do you as a writer have of getting your novel manuscript, regardless of genre, commercially published if the story and narrative therein fail to meet reader demands for sufficient suspense, character concern, and conflict? Answer: none. But what major factor makes for a quiet or dull manuscript brimming with insipid characters and a story that cascades from chapter to chapter with tens of thousands of words, all of them combining irresistibly to produce an audible thudding sound in the mind, rather like a fist hitting a side of cold beef?

Such a dearth of Élan vital in narrative and story frequently results from the unwillingness of the writer to create a suitable antagonist who stirs and spices the plot hash. And let’s make it clear what we’re talking about. By “antagonist” we specifically refer to an actual fictional character, an embodiment of certain traits and motivations who plays a significant role in catalyzing and energizing plot line(s), or at bare minimum, in assisting to evolve the protagonist’s character arc (and by default the story itself) by igniting complication(s) the protagonist, and possibly other characters, must face and solve (or fail to solve).

mischiefWriters new to the fiction game often shy away from creating an effective antagonist. If you are an editor, you see this time and time again. But why? Is it because they can’t accept that a certain percentage of cruel and selfish humans are a reality of life? Is it because they live in an American bubble surrounded only by circumstances that reinforce their Rockwellian naivety? Do they not watch Bill Moyers, or Sixty Minutes, or even a shred of film footage from the latest repressions of the downtrodden by tyrannical government forces? Or is it because they don’t understand the requirements of good dramatic fiction (no good guy without a bad guy, folks)? Or some combo thereof? Whatever. Though you would think after watching hundreds of films (even comedies) and reading God knows how many novels they might catch on. And this doesn’t mean they have to reinvent the black hat cowboy. We’re talking about prime movers of social conflict and supreme irritation that come in wide variety of forms, from relatively mild to pure evil.

Antagonists are often the most memorable characters in literature, without whom many of the best selling novels of all time would simply cease to exist, their supporting beams cut away, the shell of remaining “story” quietly imploding to ignominy and self-publication. And what drives these antagonists? Whether revenge, zealotry, ruthless ambition, hubris or just plain jealousy, the overall effect on the narrative and plot in general is identical, i.e., a dramatic condition of complication (related to plot) and concern (related to character) infuses the story.

True drama demands they exist.

[ More on Author Salon ]



The PSCO is a new way of writing a long and detailed plot synopsis about your novel or narrative non-fiction. It focuses on the development of the story, i.e., the major plot line(s), breaking up the synopsis into sections while prompting each writer to consider crucial specific elements such as setting and conflict.

The PSCO is composed of two primary parts: the first which contains the story statement, hook line, and the writer’s profile pitch synopsis, followed by the second which contains summaries of the six novel or narrative non-fiction acts, defined here as STORY ACTS. Each Story Act in turn consists of two primary parts. First, an opening summary of the entire Act with plot as the focus, and second, an appropriate subset of PLOT BRIEFS that further elaborate on the progression of the story in the Act and which touch on the most important and relevant elements and events involving the major characters, especially the antagonist and the protagonist.

[ On to The Guide ]



You are a writer. It is your job to faithfully explore and note the world of your fiction. You have here the perfect means for initiating this process: the PROSE DESCRIPTION QUESTIONNAIRE. When it comes to writing descriptive narrative, or simply generating conceptual thought regarding a specific object/person/place/event/condition in the novel, the questionnaire below is indispensable.


Things exist in the mind as hazy memory, and in reality as measurable matter; things also exist in a place and time, betwixt and between, in dark and light. Things affect human beings in different ways. Imagine the difference between an object that is foreign to you and one that is familiar and sentimental—a child’s toy, for  example. Even an object simple as a woman’s dress possesses angles and facets you might never have imagined or thought to notice (the results below are the result of brainstorming the dress with each of these questions, thus creating pages of notes later culled down and edited.). The PDQ can thus be effectively used by you to develop imagery, structure, concepts and metaphors for just about anything.

Approach each question separately, and use it as a means of brainstorming thought. Write whatever comes to mind, freely associate, and follow the path of association. Get it all down, however much, then return and edit it later, culling forth the best bits and impressions.  This process created five pages of notes on the dress below, culled to the following.

Thoughts on the dress:

Q: What of appearance? How to describe?

A: at a distance, a small cloud, one that the sun will soon dissolve; like a shadow of leaf on the bottom of a pond; like striking a match in a night-black and windowless room, the flame thereof made nervous by breath; a soft attraction with feet to carry it, arms to straighten it; sometimes a bell or a letter of alphabet between the trees, only for a moment.

[ More at Author Salon ]


Sympathy Factors In The Hook

If you‘ve won a Pulitzer you might consider disregarding the advice in this section, but it‘s not advisable. Look at the percentage of novels on the shelf right now that concentrate on creating a character the reader will become concerned with without hesitation. Quite a few, yes? A novel hook with an interesting, unique, and sympathetic character will make agents sit up and take notice. This is vital to avoiding a rejection slip.

Examples of what we’re talking about here on Author Salon as follows. The name of the character in question follows the title and author. All of the factors listed appear in the first 10 to 15 pages.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Protagonist : Christopher John Francis Boone

– A first-person narrative from an autistic 15-year-old protagonist: “My name is Christopher John Francis Boone. I know all the countries of the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7,057.”

[ More Sympathy Factor Examples ]



Lessons and Readings Necessary To The Creation of a Competitive Commercial Manuscript

As noted in our piece on scene storyboards, if you’re working on a commercial fiction or narrative non-fiction manuscript, you will benefit if you view your project as possessing three layers of increasing complexity (yes, this is a BIG cake!):

Layer I: Overall story premise and plot. These involve top level decisions regarding major characters, the overall setting, plot line evolution, dramatic complications, theme, reversals, and other, as defined in the Six Act Two-Goal Novel guide (see below).

Layer II: story scenes and their structural nature, as well as inter-scene narrative. Consider your story generally composed of units of scene, each scene performing specific tasks in the novel, always moving the plot line(s) forward and evolving the character(s). Each scene contains an opening set, an evolution of middle, and conclusion. But whether scene-based, or inter-scene, this layer comprises the matter and techniques that clarify, evolve, and elaborate on the matters of Layer I.

Layer III: The narrative composition and delivery of your scenes and inter-scene text. This includes proper point of view(s), overall tone, the quality of the narrative prose in terms of sentences, cinema, emotion display, metaphor, and more.

For our purposes here, we will divide the extant group of Author Salon craft articles and notes into the three categories above.

[ Continued at Author Salon Craft Notes ]


Exposition: What the Reader Must Know Before Plot Begins

Exposition is that information which must be delivered to the reader to enable she or he to fully understand the story going forward. The skilled and experienced author delivers exposition at the right time and place, fusing it within the narrative flow so as to avoid the appearance of artifice. Generally speaking, the reader learns exposition in a similar manner to the way life teaches it, e.g., upon moving into a new neighborhood, you learn the background history of the neighbors a bit at a time. They tell you about themselves, and others, as circumstances and conditions permit. By combining those fragments, you are finally able to perceive the entire picture of neighborhood society.

NOTE: keep in mind that most if not all major exposition MUST be delivered to the reader by the time the FIRST MAJOR PLOT POINT arrives (usually within the first 50 pages or earlier). It only makes sense.  The reader must understand the backstory and exposition before the course of the plot changes and creates the major rising action of the tale.  If this doesn’t take place, it would be equivalent, for example, of a friend were telling you about the car accident she had yesterday, beginning the story by saying: “And then the car exploded and I was taken to the hospital.” Doesn’t work. You have no context, no backstory. Where had she been driving? What caused the explosion? etc.

Below are a few character and narrative techniques for delivering exposition.

[ Exposition Notes and Examples ]


Novel Pitch Examples Used by Algonkian Workshops and Events

We at Author Salon recommend the following these Algonkian examples as models for a novel pitch session. Keep the pitch to 150-200 words (orally or in query letter format).  Note that your pitch is a diagnostic tool that helps you determine the strong and weak points of your novel. You can’t have a strong pitch without a strong novel.

Take special note of dramatic tension and plot points, rising action, character qualities.

A novel pitch example as follows, from “The English Teacher” by Lily King:

(HOOK – the entire first paragraph) Fifteen years ago Vida Avery arrived alone and pregnant at elite Fayer Academy. She has since become a fixture and one of the best English teachers Fayer has ever had. By living on campus, on an island off the New England coast, Vida has cocooned herself and her son, Peter, from the outside world and from an inside secret. (SCENE SET) For years she has lived largely through the books she teaches, but when she accepts the impulsive marriage proposal of ardent widower Tom Belou, the prescribed life Vida has constructed is swiftly dismantled. (PLOT POINT/INCITING INCIDENT creates COMPLICATION or DRAMATIC TENSION)

[ More on the Pitch ]


Storyboarding Your Scenes

Examining the progress of a protagonist or major character as they strive through the story within the context of any given scene, we can divide the vast majority of scenes into three general types. As you seek to storyboard each scene in the manner of a film director–sketching out visual setting and structural progression–carefully overview the notes below before you begin.

Types of scenes as follows:

1. Goal-to-Failure (for protagonist or other character)

  • Goal
  • Conflict or Complication
  • Failure or Calamity

Goal: What does your protagonist or other major character(s) desire or wish to accomplish? What circumstance do they wish to come about? What objective do they want to achieve? Whatever they want should relate directly or indirectly to the progression of the major plot line(s) (or subplot). The Goal must be clear to the character and the reader (otherwise we have FINNEGAN’S WAKE). This assures you will write scenes with a point that relates to the bigger story, as well as create a character who is actively engaged, not just a victim or bystander. Very important!

[ Storyboarding Your Scenes at Author Salon ]

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