Fiction Engine

gearsA novel is a machine. This is never more evident than during editing. Scenes come together like the gears meshing inside an engine.
And for the writer, when the first draft is long done, and the story has lain fallow for a time, coming back to the story is like lifting the hood of your trusty car. You are now ready to edit!


When I was younger I did not care for editing. I thought that inspiration fell upon one from heaven and words flowed like a deep river. Poetry taught me the error of this thinking. I learned to love not the rush of creation but the workman-like editing. I realized that this is where true creativity happens.
So it is with fiction.

A novel is a fiction engine. You have characters, plot, motive, conflict. Bring these pieces together in just the right way and they can create an amazing machine. If you assemble your machine well enough, the reader turns the key and drives your novel away to another realm.


This concept has been on my mind these last few weeks as I edited a friend’s novel. All the elements are there, all the ingredients for a pot-boiler of a story. What it needs now is rewrites! Editing is the place where you go back to the first chapter and plant the seed that blossoms in the last chapter. Or maybe the second to last chapter…  but the important part is planting the seed and making sure that it gets a little bit of attention through the book and then at the end, it pays off.


A page of Bram Stoker’s notes for Dracula

I realize that writers who are also planners — those odd people who create more than a Post-it note sized outline — might not need this step as much as I do. Planners probably know that Jordan is a good guy who ends up helping the hero finish the job when they start writing. Me, I just know that there’s this guy named Jordan, he runs a laundry service, and he knows something about the murder. He’s impatient, overworked, and easily annoyed. That’s enough for me. I’ll learn his story as the chapters unfold. As I’ve said elsewhere, this is not the fastest way to write, but it’s the best way I know how, and more importantly it’s fun.


The novel is a simple machine. Simple machines, like one-speed bicycles, work well, work consistently, and motion is the fuel for simple machines. That is why people say (attributed to John Gardner) that there are only two plot lines: A stranger comes to town or a person goes on a journey.

Plot is the engine block of the story, and all the little bits that orbit it (damn, I’m mixing metaphors!) are the parts that make it move. You have a through-line in the novel — Character A wants to get Z. Z can be anything — the girl, the money, the killer, the promotion, the stolen diamonds.


That’s all just fine, but who is A? What’s her biggest flaw? What is her foundational behavior? By that I mean, when things are really bad, when she’s stressed to the breaking point, what does she do? Does she lash out or retreat inside herself? Does she blame others or herself? People all have this core self that only sees the light when things are in turmoil.

Once you know the answers to the questions you can plant seeds of the behavior throughout the story. I like to use stray thoughts that flash through the character’s mind. You can build/reveal cool backstory this way. For example Jordan, our laundry guy, maybe he helps the main character because she reminds him of an old flame. A quick little bit of dialog in that first scene sets up the thread: “Cindy? What are– Oh sorry, I thought you were someone–  Never mind, whatcha need?”

As you work through the revision with this mechanism in mind, you might find 2-3 places for more Cindy background, and even better you may realize that you can collapse two really minor characters into one and change her into Cindy! Suddenly your story is stronger, your characters more motivated, your reader just that much more engaged.


rube goldbergThe novel is a machine, but it shouldn’t be a Rube Goldbergesque machine! The story should use only as many characters and plot points as needed, otherwise the story becomes a mess of people and places. Your readers (if any of them stick around) will need a field guide to characters and Cliff Notes on the plot: Sir Harvey, who was really the Duke of Wellington’s third cousin, had his own plans for the cursed ruby. He and his paramour Lilly Black planned to buy a casino, but Lilly’s husband, the craven John “Jeb” Black, had learned of the plan and wanted a piece of the action…..  Fascinating subplot, lovely writing, no doubt, but does it really help move the story forward? If you cut it, what would happen?

Keep the plot simple and sleek. Yes, life is messy, but this isn’t life. This is an artistic rendering of life. In the same way that dialog is not simply real speech transcribed, your novel’s plot should not be lifted from real life. Two or three principal characters, one or two main goals, a handful of minor characters/plot points and that’s it. Your plot and characters should fit in a shoe box.
Keep your simple machine simple, and it will not fail you.


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