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Strategic Thinking When Writing A Novel, by Greg Barron

Strategic thinking is something I have to make an effort at to do well. Some people are natural schemers and planners. I’m not. I’m more of a wanderer. This shows when I play card games or chess. I enjoy the interaction but usually get beaten by someone who thinks more than a move or two ahead. I’ve had to learn to think ahead for my writing.

Strategic thinking and writing are not at cross-purposes. People read for many reasons. Compelling characters are probably the most important reason readers continue reading a novel that they have started. Characters are compelling partly because there is something unresolved about their life or personality. Your strategy should be to make sure this is not ‘fixed’ to the reader’s satisfaction until the end of the book.

Choosing how to begin a novel can be hard. As in a game of euchre, don’t always lead with your highest trump card. What I mean is, if you are writing a story about a murder don’t necessarily kick the book off with the killing itself. Come at it obliquely with a formative character experience: something exciting and pivotal, sure, but keeping the winning card for the best possible moment will pay dividends. The reader has read the blurb. They already have expectations. Use the opening to throw them off balance.

Twists are excellent – readers love them – but they also don’t like feeling bushwhacked. They don’t want to feel that the author has withheld something that he or she should have disclosed. Offer a few hints that they will remember later, without actually giving the game away. This is called foreshadowing and all the best books and movies do it. Remember the old wisdom – if a man cleans his gun in chapter three, it better damn well kill someone in chapter twenty two.

This leads us to a related topic – the withholding of information in general. As English novelist Charles Reade once wrote, ‘Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait!’ Will Jane and Brian stay together? What did the patriarch write into his will to so tear the family apart? Even in literary writing it’s important to reveal information at key plot moments. Remember that people read on to find out what happens. If you tell them at the start they won’t feel compelled to keep reading.

Make your storyline and characters unpredictable. Some of history’s most psychopathic villains loved animals, art or music. Some so called ‘great’ people had terrible tempers, and even abused their families psychologically and physically.

As I wrote above, I’m a wanderer by nature. I tend to write first drafts that need a lot of work. The characters are in place and the plot hums along but I generally need to add some devices and scenes that make the story more suspenseful. That’s the great thing about writing: you can add the strategic thinking in later. It’s best, of course, to keep it in mind right throughout the process.

Not every book needs the level of strategy required for a Da Vinci Code or even a PG Wodehouse novel (twists and turns galore) but novels of every genre will benefit from a touch of strategy.


Greg Barron’s author website:

Greg Barron’s Bio Page

Rotten Gods     A Distant LandThe Book of LoveThe Frozen CircleThe Fortunes of Ruby WhiteState of EmergencyBurning Lies

Writing Novels in Australia

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jenn J McLeod | Come home to the country... #

    Interesting. I hope someone does a post on prologues. I have no opinion about them except when they are used as a device to hook the reader. Sometimes I’ve read a book and gone back to the prologue to review its fit/purpose. It annoys me when there isn’t a connection; that it was just a device.

    May 8, 2013
    • Thanks for the suggestion Jenn … prologues would make a good topic.

      May 9, 2013

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