Structuring a Novel Part 5: The Breather


Structuring the Novel: The Breather

Lesson 5

Recap:  Within the first 15 pages, you have set the hook and stated the theme. Within the first 50 pages, you have established the plot and introduced the primary characters, complete with flaws. Between pages 36 and 50, you have provided the hero and the character with a life changing moment, which will change the direction of the novel. Between pages 50 and 75, the hero determines what needs to be done and makes the definite decision and commitment to accomplish it, regardless of the odds.

You are now facing a blank wall as you come to the end of part one in the novel. The primary story is firmly in place: plot, characters, a life changing twist, a decision for the hero to take charge of his or her own fate. You’ve been running at break-neck speed. The hero has been drowning in fear and consequences. It is as though you have taken your characters and thus your readers and squeezed them dry, drained them of all their emotion.

They need a break. So does the story.

It’s time for the breather.

By page ninety, you can begin introducing your secondary story or your sub-plot. The theme of the novel is already in motion. The machinery is grinding forward. Nothing can slow it down. Nothing can stop it. It is headed for a conclusion that no one but the author knows, and, at this point, most authors aren’t really sure where they are headed.

Characters have other ideas sometimes.


Characters always have other ideas.

Writers don’t keep them on track. The characters keep leading the writers down odd roads and in curious directions, and the smart authors surrender and follow along. They recognized long ago that the characters are much smarter than they are.

So what about the breather? In most genre novels, with the possible exception of romance, this is where the love story surfaces and grows and flourishes amidst all of its turbulence and turmoil. If love runs a smooth course, it’s not love. At least, it’s not believable.

Let’s take another look at one of the life changing moments from an earlier section. We were talking about the thriller and threw out this idea: An intelligence officer discovers that his boss and mentor, a living legend in the CIA, has for decades been a double agent, delivering top-secret information to a Soviet agent in the midst of the Cold War. His boss is dying. Should he arrest the man or protect his reputation while searching for the Russian operative in a maze of Washington politics.

This is heavy stuff.

By page ninety, the U.S. intelligence officer is terribly conflicted. He knows what he should do. But his heart is telling him something else. Yet, if he doesn’t do his duty, he could forever jeopardize his career. He might even land in prison. No. There is no doubt he would land in prison.

Enter the Soviet agent.

She is young. She is beautiful. She has a job in a U. S. Senator’s office. She is quiet. She is timid. She does the mundane work no one else wants to do. No one would ever suspect her of being anything other than an awkward and pretty little farm girl from Iowa.

She is being strangled by the dilemma she faces.

Her primary contact, the man who gave her the intelligence she funneled back to Russia, is dying and in a coma. Her reservoir of information has dried up. And the Soviets are demanding that she stay. Find another source, they say.

She finds our hero, the intelligence officer. After all, she reasons, he was mentored by the double agent. He has a deep love and respect for his old boss.

She tries to recruit him.

The intelligence officer knows the girl is in danger and frantically tries to persuade the beautiful agent into giving up her wicked ways, leaving the Soviet spy ring, and settling down in America with him. He will find an identity for her. He will protect her.

In the beginning, there is no trust between them. At times, there is blatant animosity. Both are defiant.

The sparks fly, and the sparks ignite the love story.

That is the breather.

When you introduce the sub-plot and make your way into the secondary story, you also have the opportunity to shuffle a whole fascinating array of unforgettable and offbeat characters into the novel.

The plot does not revolve around them, but they play integral roles and always show up at the oddest of times, usually just when they are needed. And often, some of them provide wisecracking comic relief. The doorman at the hotel where the operative’s old boss always met with the Soviet agent. The newspaper reporter who thinks he can find the best, front-page stories in Washington politics by drinking heavily and eavesdropping on drunken conversations at the Capitol Bar. The retired chief of security who is the hired gun for the most influential brothel in town. The Madam who would sell state secrets as quickly and easily as her body if the price were right. A wonderful bunch of potential characters hang out on almost every street corner. They make you laugh. They make you cry. They give the novel life and staying power. Remember the great character actors in the motion pictures? I knew a movie would be good as soon as Walter Brennan or Jack Elam walked into a scene.

The hero never strays far from his original quest, leaving only now then and just long enough to fall in love. But within the sub-plot, he can move randomly among an interesting bunch of characters, who provide him another conduit to make sure the bottom line theme continues to be carried throughout the book.

Part one has danger and Intrigue. The subplot has love, romance, all that implies, and a cast of Damon Runyon characters.

Part one may have a heavy dose of suspense that can often suffocate you. But the secondary story moves the storyline off the roller coaster and into the fun house, usually with a side trip or two to the freak show.


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