Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: Threading the Character Loom

Starting a piece of crocheting or knitting is easy: crochet a chain or cast on a certain number of stitches and we’re off and running. Setting up a piece of weaving takes more time, energy, and concentration. A weaver has to know the pattern both up and down and side to side. How many threads make a pattern? How are thread colors arranged within the pattern? Are patterns next to each other or is there plain cloth separating them? She also has to know the length to cut each warp thread.

Writing is a lot less precise than weaving. Most writers can’t say for certain that an event will happen on page 257. The only hard and fast rule is the gold standard that at least one character has to want something on every page. That in itself is not easy.

By convention and general usage, there are guidelines for some things. The object here is not rigidity, but these are things that are going to happen anyway, and we know that bringing them in at certain points works well. Why wear ourselves out swimming upstream?

  • Page 1: the protagonist is on-stage. This is the person the reader has come to see. Let them see her. One of the mistakes that mystery writers make is to start with the villain, often in a prologue, and then introduce the protagonist in Chapter 1. Readers are like baby ducks: they want to bond with the first person they read about. It’s not fair to them to introduce the villain, and then pull him or her out of the book for an extended period of time.
  • Page 1 (science fiction or fantasy): the reader needs to know right off that this is an alternative universe.
  • Page 3 to 5 (romance): the cute meet. The reader comes to the book to see the interactions between two people. Why make them wait?
  • Page 30 (mystery): there is a body. I’ve heard a range of numbers, from page 5 to page 100 for this, but 30 is a nice middle number. The reader wants a crime; give it to him.
  • No more than first 1/4 of the book: initial roadblocks get in the protagonist’s way: some are irritating, some may be funny, some may be confusing, but none of them advance the plot in great leaps and bounds. Their purpose is small developments in plot and larger developments in characters. For a 300 page book, this takes us to about page 75.
  • Page 100: the earliest that back story story should enter the book. For the difference between context (which should be there from page 1) and back story, see my earlier blog on the Dreaded Back Story.
  • At about 1/3 of the book: a second incident turns the protagonist’s onto a deeper path: it’s not a game any more. For a mystery, this is often a second body. For a romance, this is where the relationship stops going well for the couple. At this point their differences aren’t enough to drive them apart, but they are enough to make them uncomfortable and cautious with one another.
  • About 30 pages from the end of the book: the crisis: everything in the book has built to this moment
  • The last 3 to 5 pages: denouement: tying up loose ends

There are also embellishments, small details or turning points that can make a book deeper and richer. Having a rough plan of where to put them in the book is like planning a trip. We start out with a best guess of when we’re going to need more gas or where we’re likely to stop for supper.


  • Why does our protagonist’s life matter? Where do we want to put the moment when the protagonist recognizes this?
  • What can our main character(s) do that no one else can do? How do we want to space this 3 – 4 times through the book, including one time that it fails or costs the character something important?
  • Find a tic or habit counter to everything the character believes. How do we want to space this 3 – 4 times through the book. Know the explanation of why she does it, but hold that explanation well into the book. Make the explanation worth waiting for.
  • What’s the hardest thing to understand about our character? As with the tics or habits, know the explanation, make the explanation worthwhile, and hold the explanation in reserve until at least chapter 20.
  • Whom does the protagonist love the best? What characteristic does the love object have that’s not nice? When do we want to bring in that trait? How many times do we want to bring it in? How does the protagonist rationalize overlooking that trait? At what point does he/she stop overlooking that trait?
  • When do we want to have a secondary character suffer a small hurt or injustice that reflects a larger injustice in the world. The protagonist recognizes the larger perspective by witnessing the smaller incident.
  • When do we want the moment when the protagonist gets angry and instead of taking action, calmly walks away? Serenity in the face of provocation matters.

Computer tables are great for creating a threading list. Make a chart with two columns, the first date, the second notes. Plug in approximate page numbers or divisions of the book like 1/3 or 1/4 in the first column and what you want to happen around that point in the second column. You may already know details of an incident, or you might use very general terms, such as “Stacey and Gordon have a big fight.” In either case, a threading chart is a very useful thing to have as we begin our novel.

I hope to see you back on Thursday, May 1, for thoughts on writing under our own names.

Next Tuesday, May 6, we’re going to talk about Blurbs.